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Some Things Best Kept Private


March 18, 2008

When the government collects routine information about citizens, that data should be made public.

Newspapers routinely print who the police arrest, who is hired by city hall and how politicians are spending your tax dollars.

But what do you think might happen if someone obtained the names, addresses and pictures of illegal immigrants that have been collected by the city of New Haven, and posted that information on the Internet?

I can give you an idea.

Last summer, when New Haven launched its controversial Elm City Resident Card, which offers official identification to all city residents including illegal immigrants it brought out the lunatic fringe.

"You need to be taken by the United States citizens and killed," someone wrote to Kica Matos, who oversees the program.

"When they show up for an I.D. card, shoot them dead," a concerned citizen suggested.

Another wrote to Mayor John DeStefano: "I have my automatic rifle ready to go and I won't hesitate to use it to kill these rodents." One woman warned against "this dirty race from Mexico" that the mayor's initiative is designed to help with an ID card to access banks and the library and to assist police with public safety.

Maybe I'm overreacting and these vitriolic opponents are just your average viewers of the Lou Dobbs television program. But I'm not so sure.

The leader of one local group that has filed a state Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the names and addresses of all card holders made this statement last year:

"If we can obtain the records, imagine who else can get them," said Dustin Gold of the Community Watchdog Project. "It is our duty and our right to protect America and all of the legal citizens that reside here."

Gold has a provocative ally in his campaign Chris Powell, editor of the feisty Journal Inquirer newspaper in Manchester. He has also filed an FOI request, decrying secret government and an ID card that he says encourages illegal activity.

Powell, who told me that he might turn the names over to the immigration authorities, is the sort of editor-with-a-backbone in short supply these days. But he's wrong here. This will only throw red meat to wing-nuts who think that the immigration solution is a jackboot deportation of 12 million illegal immigrants now living and working at jobs no one else will do in the United States.

"I deplore as much as anybody else the Nazi-style raids in the middle of the night and separation of parents from their children," Powell told me, referring to tactics used by Immigration officers in New Haven last summer.

"I would like to enforce the law without terrorizing people," he said, reminding me correctly that we are talking about information that belongs to the public.

Gold told me that he wasn't sure what his "anti-illegal immigrant" group would do with the names.

"The whole claim that if the list was made public that vigilante groups or racist organizations would go hunt down illegal aliens is wrong," Gold said, explaining that it would be difficult to tell who is illegal.

DeStefano and his supporters disagree.

"Anti-immigrant activists and vigilante groups will use racial and ethnic profiling in an effort to target persons they believe are more likely to be undocumented immigrants," lawyers argue in documents filed with the FOI commission.

In a recent letter to DeStefano, James M. Thomas, the state's homeland security commissioner, pointed out that Hal Turner, a New Jersey neo-Nazi, said on an Internet radio show last summer that the ID program was a "perfect opportunity for a drive-by shooting."

What would happen if the names were released? Nothing good.

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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