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Hartford Considers Restricting Police Inquiries About Immigration Status

By MARK SPENCER | Courant Staff Writer

July 22, 2008

Cesar Torres was having a good time at a late-night party at a Hartford apartment in 2002 when suddenly things turned horribly wrong.

Before he knew what was happening, his friend Julio Caesar Unocc lay on the floor mortally wounded with seven stab wounds. Torres immediately called 911, setting in motion a series of events that changed his life.

"I kept thinking, 'They have to get those guys,'" Torres said. "Instead, they got me.'"

Torres, 33, said Monday he didn't hesitate to tell the police everything he knew. When they learned he was in the country illegally, they called immigration authorities and Torres was soon back in Peru, separated from his wife, an American citizen, and their newborn baby.

Now back in the Unites States legally, Torres told his story Monday during a Hartford city council public hearing on an ordinance supporters say they hope will help undocumented immigrants overcome their fear of cooperating with police.

The ordinance would put Hartford on the list of cities that want to protect their residents who are illegal immigrants and extend other services to them. Introduced by Councilman Luis Cotto, the proposal would prohibit the police from inquiring about a person's immigration status in most situations.

Police could not arrest or detain anyone solely because immigration authorities had issued an administrative warrant for them, which is a civil matter.

Cotto said undocumented immigrants who commit crimes should be aggressively pursued, but Hartford's understaffed police department has enough to do.

"Hartford has real issues to deal with," said Cotto, a Working Families Party member. "Hartford does not have the luxury to have its police act as federal law enforcement officers."

In the midst of the greatest influx of immigrants since 1910, municipalities across the country are struggling with how to adjust to a new reality. As repeated efforts to reform federal immigration law have failed, communities have felt pressured to deal with the issue.

Many have taken a tougher approach. In Danbury, the city approved in February having some of its officers trained to enforce federal immigration law, a once rare but increasingly popular approach.

Mayor Mark Boughton said the city is waiting, along with 80 other jurisdictions, for final approval from the Department of Homeland Security to join the program.

The Danbury officers will use their immigration authority only when it becomes relevant in a criminal investigation, not for general roundups of illegal immigrants, Boughton said. He said an ordinance such as Hartford's could be too restrictive on police.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all situation," Boughton said.

Hartford's approach follows in the footsteps of New Haven, where a general order from the police chief, supported by Mayor John DeStefano Jr., restricts police from inquiring about immigration status.

New Haven went further, adopting a city identification card available to all residents, regardless of their immigration status. Kica Matos, administrator of New Haven's Community Services Department, said 6,600 residents have received the identification card, which celebrates its first anniversary Thursday.

"Our experience in New Haven is the ID card and the general order have made people in the immigrant community feel safer and more willing to cooperate with the police," she said Monday at the end of a trip to California where she advised officials in several cities, including Los Angeles, about how to create the cards.

The debate in Hartford intensified late last year after Hartford police and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents conducted raids in the Parkville neighborhood while seeking a suspect wanted for attempted murder. Twenty-one alleged illegal immigrants were detained and panic spread through the Brazilian community.

In March, Mayor Eddie A. Perez and Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts issued a statement trying to reassure people that the local police would not make immigration arrests unless there was also a criminal investigation.

"The Hartford police will not arrest a person based solely on their immigration status unless there is a criminal warrant issued by federal authorities for that individual," the statement said.

Perez spokeswoman Sarah Barr on Monday deferred to the statement when asked if the mayor supported the ordinance.

"The mayor is supportive of the concept of Councilor Cotto's proposed ordinance and is reviewing all aspects of it," Barr said.

Cotto said the March statement and the ordinance are similar, but the ordinance sends a clearer message to the community in an effort to re-establish trust. It also goes further, he said, guaranteeing access to city programs such as social services.

"If you live in this city, if you are a resident in good standing, you are due some services," he said.

That aspect troubles Boughton. "When you start offering services for everyone, you wind up encouraging people to enter the country illegally or overstay their visas," he said.

Cotto thinks he has the six votes he needs to get the ordinance approved when it goes to the full council next month.

On Monday, about 100 people packed the council chamber for the public hearing. They applauded enthusiastically when Torres and others spoke. No one spoke against the proposal.

To this day, Torres said, many people he knows are terrified of the police. And he laments the separation from his wife, which left their relationship in tatters.

"I don't want what happened to me to happen to other families," he 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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