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A Confrontation Over Immigration

Rights Activists Picket, Speak Out At Meeting

May 25, 2005
By MARK SPENCER, Courant Staff Writer

WEST HARTFORD -- Mary Long looked relieved when she finally pulled the plug on Tuesday night's meeting of Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Control, short-circuiting the rising tension in the room.

More than 150 immigration activists had picketed the meeting, marching up and down the sidewalk in front of the Elmwood Community Center. They outnumbered those inside by three to one.

When the demonstration ended and some of the protesters slowly filtered into the meeting, the two sides came face to face over the emotional issue of immigration.

The confrontation would have been unlikely several years ago, before the steady influx of immigrants to the state had received much attention.

But Connecticut is experiencing the same polarization seen in other states that have long been centers of immigration.

It was only the second public meeting for Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Control, which wants to see stricter immigration laws.

Frustrated by the opposition the group faced Tuesday, Long said she is not sure a third public meeting is worthwhile.

Long told about 45 people who showed up for the meeting that she started paying attention to immigration after she learned that some of those involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 had been issued visas and driver's licenses.

"I assumed someone was going to fix those things real quick so it wouldn't happen again," she said.

When that didn't happen, she decided to get involved. She met the other founders of the group when she went to the state legislature to support more restriction on issuing driver's licenses and to oppose a proposal to grant in-state college tuition to some undocumented immigrants.

For Paul Streitz, one of the people Long met, controlling immigration is about protecting jobs, which he said are being taken by undocumented immigrants willing to work for low wages.

"Mexico is actively exporting its poor," said Streitz.

That kind of comment drew groans from the demonstrators who had slowly filled the empty chairs in the community center's auditorium.

When the group announced several weeks ago it planned to come to West Hartford - after its first meeting in Danbury attracted about 150 people - local activists formed the Ad Hoc Committee for Immigrants Rights.

That group gathered at Shields Plaza on New Britain Avenue early Tuesday night and marched several blocks to the community center.

"The message that we're trying to send is that this country was built on the sweat equity of all the immigrants who came here," said the Rev. Persida Rivera Mendez of the New Hope Hispanic Christian Church in East Hartford.

"The immigrants today want the same rights and opportunities other immigrants had in the past."

As marchers paced the sidewalk in front of the community center, a 20-year-old who gave only his first name, Fernando, joined in the chants. Through an interpreter, he said he was from Mexico City and had been in the United States for two years.

One of the things he liked about the United States, he said, was that he could "have a voice, be heard."

One of the things he did not like was that the large construction company he had worked for in Connecticut paid him $10 an hour, while paying other workers $30 an hour He said he was fired when he complained about it.

Hoping to avoid confrontations, organizers of the demonstration had encouraged people not to enter the meeting. West Hartford police did not stop people from entering the community center, but asked those who had signs to leave them outside.

An hour after the meeting started at 6:30 p.m., demonstrators almost outnumbered those who were there at the beginning.

Long opened the meeting to questions at about 8 p.m. as eight West Hartford police officers positioned themselves around the perimeter of the auditorium. It didn't take long for the question-and-answer period to descend into a shouting match.

"This has been a very lively discussion," she said. "Thank you all for coming."

Long said the group had considered holding another meeting in Waterbury next month.

But as people filed out of the room Tuesday, she said a "boring, old fashioned" organizing meeting for members only might better serve the group.

"We really need to decide if this kind of meeting serves a purpose," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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