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On a sunny fall afternoon, Rafael Ramos pulls up in front of a modest house in a working-class neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut. He hops...
by | November 30, 2008

On a sunny fall afternoon, Rafael Ramos pulls up in front of a modest house in a working-class neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut. He hops out and heads for the open door of a street-level apartment. A young man and woman standing outside with their two toddlers eye him warily, but when Ramos asks in Spanish if he can enter, they invite him in.

Ramos is deputy director of the city's housing code enforcement division, and he is not happy with what he sees in the tiny, two-room dwelling: The sole source of heat is a small, wall-mounted device that malfunctions easily and is a threat for carbon monoxide; a second exit at the back of the family's shared bedroom is boarded up. In deliberate Spanish, he explains the problems and begs the couple not to use the cheap heater. As the husband enlists a neighbor to help him knock through the back exit and create an opening for safety, Ramos pulls out his cell phone, calls the landlady and tells her about the violations he's found. He hangs up, shaking his head. "I'll give her 30 days to deal with the heating," he says, "because these people are not going to survive after October with that furnace."

Other than the possibility that Ramos will be forced to condemn the apartment in a few weeks, one small thing is striking about this encounter -- how little tension there is. The couple are illegal immigrants from Ecuador, not the sort one would expect to welcome official notice. Yet, says Ramos, pretty much every renter he deals with in this immigrant-heavy section of the city, known as Fair Haven, treats him civilly. "I knock on the door, identify myself, ask if I can come in, and they're always, 'Sure, you want some coffee?' In other parts of the city, people are, 'What do you want? Go away!'"

Ramos' reception in Fair Haven, where a significant portion of the city's estimated 12,000 to 15,000 illegal immigrants live, is due in no small part to the fact that City Hall has gone out of its way to make friends there. At countless community meetings and door-to-door encounters over the past couple of years, police and city officials have told residents that their immigration status is a point of municipal indifference. In a 2006 "general order," the police department announced it would not ask about immigration status "unless investigating criminal activity," and even then wouldn't check the legal status of crime victims or witnesses -- only suspects. It declared it would not make arrests based on warrants issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Nothing has signaled New Haven's unusual approach toward illegal immigrants more dramatically, though, than what it did last year: It began issuing what it calls the "Elm City ID Card" to anyone who can prove residence in the city, regardless of how they got there. There is no question that a significant portion of the 6,900 people who had taken advantage of the offer by this past October were in the country illegally. "If you whip out this card, there's no way of telling where you're from," says Kica Matos, New Haven's community services director, who helped create the program. "It just says that you live in New Haven."

Nothing related to immigration is simple these days. The failure of Congress to come to grips with the illegal immigrant problem has, as New Haven's mayor, John DeStefano, puts it, "dumped this issue as a practical matter into the laps of hometowns across America." Some have responded with a hard-headed approach, passing ordinances that call for fines or jail time for property owners who knowingly rent to illegal immigrants or employers who hire them. Around the country, 63 state and local police agencies have signed memoranda of agreement to have ICE train their officers in enforcing immigration laws, and more are on a waiting list to do so. At the same time, other communities have gone in the opposite direction, joining the sanctuary city movement that makes it a matter of policy not to check immigration status except in criminal cases.

New Haven, though, remains the only city in the country to take the sanctuary impulse further and offer an ID card and the symbolic acceptance that it confers. This step has won it the intrigued attention of other cities, from nearby Hartford to San Francisco and Richmond, California, that are grappling with how to shape their own responses to illegal immigrants. It also has earned New Haven the scorn of federal immigration officials and landed it square in the sights of anti-immigrant activists, who remain a persistent thorn in City Hall's side.

A small group of mostly white suburbanites, who call themselves the Community Watchdog Project, have harried Matos and DeStefano on the card in particular and the overall policy of welcoming illegal immigrants. "The people he claims he's helping, he's not helping at all," says Lou Gold, a private investigator who is the father of the group's founder, Dustin Gold. "He's helping the people who rent them apartments, or sell them cigarettes, or make them work 60 hours a week in the back of the kitchen."

Yet despite the CWP's doggedness, what may be most noticeable about the card a year and a half after its introduction is how muted it has become as a citywide issue. In recent hearings on whether to accept foundation funding for the second year of the program, members of the Board of Aldermen spent most of their time praising the card.

Still, it would be hard to call the program a raging success. Although nearly 6,000 adult cardholders is hardly an insignificant number, that's a minority of the illegal immigrants in New Haven. And while the card appears to have boosted immigrants' use of the public libraries and made them more comfortable about talking to the police, it has not helped many immigrants make use of the city's banks, which was a key goal.

To backers of the idea, though, the card's greatest effect may never be measurable: the extent to which it eases the burdens of daily life for immigrant residents and for city officials such as Rafael Ramos. "They see someone like Rafael Ramos as either someone who will help them or do nothing, but he won't hurt them," says Robert Solomon, a Yale University law professor who runs a legal clinic. "That's how we should feel about city employees. We have a percentage of our population that was afraid to do things, and now they're less afraid. They're more a part of the community than they were without the card."

Point of Entry

You get a sense of why this is important in New Haven when you realize that there are two basic sources of urban dynamism in the city these days. The first is on the fringes of downtown, where Yale has undertaken several prodigious -- at least, for a city of 124,000 -- building projects. The other is Fair Haven.

Set off from the rest of the city on three sides by the Mill and Quinnipiac rivers and on the fourth by train tracks and an interstate highway, Fair Haven has long been a neighborhood apart and a point of entry for immigrants and residents of humble means. Waves of Polish, German, Italian and Irish settled there, filling its tenements until, in the 1950s and '60s, many of them moved out and were replaced by Puerto Ricans and African-Americans. By the 1970s, Fair Haven was down at its heels, its major thoroughfares of Grand Avenue and Ferry Street lined with tattered storefronts that housed thrift shops, liquor stores and all-night convenience stores that attracted drug traffic.

Today, Grand Avenue surges with the life of a home away from home: Latin music pulsing from open doorways and cars; restaurants serving Peruvian, Ecuadoran and Mexican food; money-transfer businesses; markets that stock hard-to-find foods that the giant C-Town supermarket around the corner -- which carries plenty of goods from Latin America -- doesn't sell. "We've cleaned up the drug and prostitution problems in this corridor," says Angelo Reyes, a Fair Haven native who did some time in jail himself for drug dealing, came out determined to turn around his life and neighborhood, and now owns a few choice pieces of Grand Avenue, which he is bent on revitalizing. "We've got better businesses and better jobs here, now. And a lot of Latinos are choosing to stay and put a foundation down."

The influx of immigrants from all over Latin America -- both legal and illegal -- has put Fair Haven on a more promising track, but it remains predominantly a working-poor and working-class neighborhood. Outside the immigrant community, says Lieutenant Luiz Casanova, who commands the police district substation there, the chief issue has been crime related to the drug trade. "The undocumented folks are not part of that problem," he says. "When I first took over the district almost four years ago, what I noticed was that we had a large community within our community that was being overlooked -- they were being victimized. We had several murders of undocumented folks, we had assaults and home invasions. The bad element knew they didn't trust the banks or couldn't put their money in the banks."

The Elm City ID card had its genesis in that problem, and specifically in a 2005 meeting that a couple of immigrant advocacy groups held with police and Mayor DeStefano. One of those groups was run at the time by Kica Matos, the current community services director. At the meeting, one immigrant stood up to say that undocumented residents hesitated to cooperate with police because they knew they'd be asked for identification and were nervous about not having any. "What if the city issued IDs?" he asked.

Students in a legal clinic at Yale Law School did some research and concluded that an identity card rooted in proof of residency would be legal under both state and federal laws. Even so, delayed by DeStefano's unsuccessful 2006 gubernatorial campaign, the card didn't make its debut until July of last year.

When the city finally did introduce it, there was an explicit attempt to broaden its appeal beyond immigrants, mostly by emphasizing that it could be useful for all residents. And it is. The Elm City ID can be used to get discounts from retailers, buy time on parking meters and gain entrance to the city's beach, golf course and parks. "It's turned into a Chamber of Commerce promotion," scoffs card opponent Dustin Gold.

Yet from the card's first days, it's been seen within the community at large mostly as a tool for immigrants to use. Two days after it was introduced, people hoping to apply for one were arriving before dawn to stand in a line, made up overwhelmingly of immigrants, that eventually stretched down the block.

DeStefano is adamant that the card should be seen as a "resident's" card, not designed for any particular group, but he doesn't dispute how it's actually used. "In a community, we all have rights, but we also have responsibilities," he says. "Here in New Haven, what this meant was we had this population that was sort of in a gray area, and it was prohibiting enforcement of the social contract in the sense that people weren't reporting crime because they were afraid to talk to the police. That's not just bad for the victims of crime, who might be illegal undocumented residents; it's bad for the person who's been living next door for 30 years, that you've created an environment of lawlessness. You've created this population that is -- because of their fears and the status the federal government has created for them -- afraid to interact with us. But we work best when everyone's on the same team. And that's what this was about: getting everyone on the same team."

The Other Side

For the die-hard opponents involved with the Community Watchdog Project, the very idea that the city would want to be on the same team with Latinos in the country illegally is close to treasonous. When the Office of New Haven Residents -- the department responsible for issuing the Elm City cards -- held a "Family Day" at City Hall in September, about 20 people affiliated with the CWP showed up to protest. Their ire at the city ballooned when they noticed that, across the street on the New Haven Green, the Mexican flag was flying just underneath the American flag. "It's intimidating to us," muttered Armand Serio, an anti-ID-card activist from next-door West Haven. "It's just to make us upset."

As it turns out, the flag was a leftover from a celebration of Mexican Independence Day the week before. But enough hate mail flowed into City Hall in the wake of the event -- "You need to get your head out of your proverbial rectal area and become an American," one e-mailer told DeStefano -- that the mayor called his own little rally by the city's flagpole to point out that Italian, Irish, Polish, Ukrainian and other flags also had flown there in celebration of New Haven's immigrant makeup.

Matos and DeStefano both label the Watchdog Project and its followers "a hate group." Dustin Gold, a graphic and Web designer from suburban North Branford who created and runs the CWP, insists that it doesn't hate anyone: It is merely worried about the effects of being too soft on illegal immigrants. "On one hand, you have people breaking into the country who are undercutting wages," he says. "On the other hand, they are being used and exploited, and whether they realize it or not, they are helping reconstitute a slave class in this country. My biggest beef is with politicians who encourage it and businesses that take advantage of it."

Gold and his allies have gotten their fair share of media coverage as the only organized opposition to the ID card. They tried to deep-six the card by filing a Freedom of Information request for the names and addresses of cardholders, but were turned down by the state Freedom of Information Commission. The CWP appealed, but its lawyer failed to file the appeal within the legal time limit.

A more pointed riposte to DeStefano's policy has come from Danbury, a city of 79,000 about 35 miles northwest of New Haven. There, the city council voted last February to join the so-called ICE ACCESS program, which trains police officers in immigration enforcement. "The message is, if you come into the United States of America, you've got to follow the law," says the city's Republican mayor, Mark Boughton, who has debated DeStefano on the matter several times. "We can't undermine federal law by doing things like providing ID cards and rights and benefits for people who don't go through the process correctly." Danbury, too, has a large immigrant population, especially of Ecuadorans, and Boughton contends that his city's more hard-edged approach hasn't made them afraid of the police. "I hear that excuse every day as an excuse to undermine federal law," he says. "But my experience has been that people aren't afraid to approach the police to report a crime." On the other hand, there is anecdotal evidence from New Haven that a significant number of Ecuadorans has been moving there from Danbury -- and, indeed, Ecuador chose New Haven for its first new consulate between New York and Boston.

Mayors and top senior officials on all sides of the issue concede Boughton's point that the presence of a large population of illegal immigrants hits city government's front lines. But many dispute that the hard-nosed approach can work. "They're here already," Ramos says of the illegal immigrants he visits. "They're here. Should we not protect their health and safety while they're here? Are we going to close our eyes? We can't turn our backs on them."

In the end, the differing approaches of cities such as New Haven and Danbury will likely be judged less on the grounds of ideology than on their day-to-day impact on people such as Ramos and the families he works with. So far, that's been hard to measure in New Haven. "The empirical data generally on the undocumented population is terrible," says Michael Wishnie, a Yale law professor who has spearheaded the legal work supporting the card. "If someone says, 'What was the crime rate in Fair Haven and the crime-reporting rate in the five years before the ID, and what's the crime rate and crime reporting rate after?' people don't have those numbers. It's not because New Haven is special: No city has those numbers."

Several Yale departments are working with the city to develop more solid data. Luiz Casanova, the police supervisor in Fair Haven, says he has seen a 17 percent drop in the overall crime rate in his district since the city began using its more tolerant approach in 2006. The card's effect, he says, "is hard to measure, but it does give folks a sense of belonging, it gives them, I guess, ownership of the community. It puts folks at ease when you go to them and ask them, 'Do you have any ID?'"

James Welbourne, the city librarian, says that concrete statistics on library usage are hard to come by, since ID-card account numbers are indistinguishable from regular library-card numbers. His staff, however, tells him that the card has brought many more customers. "Hispanic families are coming into the library, and particularly the neighborhood branches, for services; they all have the ID card with them when they check out books or access the computers. We've also seen increased interest in the library's offerings of ESL classes."

If there is one area where the card has disappointed its architects, it's in banking. So far, only four banks in New Haven have agreed to accept the card for identification, and even those four accept it only as a secondary form of ID. A potential depositor still needs a driver's license or Social Security card, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for an illegal immigrant to open an account. Matos, DeStefano and others are counting on the launch next year of a new community-development bank to help Elm City Card holders move out of the margins of the financial system.

What is certainly clear is that places such as New Haven will be crafting their approaches to illegal immigration for a long time to come. "Cities and counties around the country have to think about local measures to address the realities of new immigrant populations and how institutions like libraries, the police, fire departments, hospitals and schools can adapt to the realities of those populations -- whatever happens in Congress," says Wishnie. "I don't think the ID card is going to sweep the nation, but given the dispersion of new immigrants into communities that hadn't seen new immigration for a hundred years, what I hope does sweep the nation is the question, 'Well, that's what worked for New Haven. Now what might work for us?'"

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net  | 

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