Hartford police and federal immigration agents are working together to find a Brazilian-born man wanted on charges of attempted murder and robbery, police Chief Daryl Roberts told about 40 people who packed the Shaheen Brazilian Community Center on Park Street Thursday.
In the process, 21 alleged illegal immigrants have been arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and panic has spread through Parkville's emerging Brazilian enclave. Several people at the meeting spoke of immigrants fearful of leaving their homes, and businesses that rely on their patronage teetering toward collapse.
Ester Sanches-Naek, president of the center, began the meeting by saying, "We're here just to try to find a way for the community to go back to where it was before."
But based on what police and ICE officials said, it is unclear whether that is likely to happen any time soon, or at least until the suspect is caught.
The incident that triggered the raids occurred Oct. 2 at 5 S. Whitney St., a few doors north of Park Street. Moises Coutinho, 23, is accused of shooting a man in the neck in a small Brazilian restaurant. The victim has since been released from a hospital.
Roberts said he rearranged his schedule to spend about two hours at the hastily called meeting, one of several ways community groups are trying to respond to the raids. He tried to reassure people who live in the neighborhood that the police were simply trying to solve a "heinous crime."
"First and foremost, this is your police department, this is your community," Roberts said after walking to the podium and peeling off his dress jacket. "You don't have to fear your police department."
But he also made it clear police would continue to work with ICE in the investigation, which could include more arrests of suspected illegal immigrants.
"If you are here illegally, you might want to worry," Roberts said.
The way cities in the state have decided to handle the thorny issue of illegal immigration has varied widely. In New Haven, police are prohibited by ordinance from asking about a person's immigration status, while Danbury is considering deputizing its police to enforce federal immigration law.
ICE raids in New Haven and Danbury have prompted demonstrations and are being challenged in federal court by a team of law professors and students from Yale's Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization.
Roberts described a Hartford policy that appears to be fluid and fall between the two. City police do not look for illegal immigrants, but in certain circumstances will inquire about immigration status.
"We normally don't, but it doesn't mean we can't," Roberts said.
George Sullivan, assistant field director for the ICE office of detention and removal in the state, said ICE's priorities are identifying incarcerated criminals who are illegal immigrants; finding immigrants with a standing deportation order; and, increasingly, working with other law enforcement agencies on investigations that have an immigration angle.
"This is one case where they asked us to help and we helped," he said.
ICE does not go out randomly looking for people who may be illegal immigrants because there are too many for the system to handle, he said.
"We're not out to just arrest undocumented who are otherwise hard-working, law-abiding," Sullivan said.
Both Roberts and Sullivan acknowledged immigration is a volatile issue and potential changes in the law, such as amnesty, could change the landscape, but added that they were obliged to enforce the current law.
Sullivan said ICE at times does not detain a suspected illegal immigrant, such as when detaining two parents would deprive a child of care.
The first joint operation in the attempted murder case occurred shortly after the shooting and they have continued sporadically since then as police obtain new information on possible addresses to check. Although Roberts said he believed Coutinho was still in the area, sources in the community say rumors have him variously in New York, Florida or Brazil.
Several sources also said they believe Coutinho was a legal resident of the U.S., but Roberts said he was uncertain of his status.
"Unfortunately, he's victimized an entire community," Roberts said.
Jason McGahan, of the Trinity College-based group Stop the Raids, said the investigation was creating terror and those arrested were unjustly considered "collateral damage."
Luis Cotto, who was elected Tuesday to his first term on the city council, said if Hartford had an ordinance similar to New Haven's it would "go a long way toward relieving the fear."
Several people in the audience said Brazilians would help find the suspect if they had information, but are now fearful of contacting the police.
Ambassador Jose Alfredo Graca Lima, Brazil's general consul in New York City, came to Hartford for the meeting and encouraged Brazilians to report crimes to police.
"Hopefully," he said, "this will not go on forever."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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