July 25, 2007
By MARK SPENCER, Courant Staff Writer
NEW HAVEN - Illegal immigrants who showed up at city hall Tuesday along with other residents to apply for the new municipal identification card got a hands-on civics lesson, from the banal to the inspiring.
And there was plenty of public discourse, often loud and heated, as supporters and opponents jousted on the inaugural day of the program, apparently the first of its kind in the country.
That fact has drawn national attention to New Haven, the latest locality to address immigration as federal reform efforts falter. On Tuesday, the national media were on hand to witness the plan go live.
Shortly after 9 a.m., city leaders used oversize scissors to cut the red ribbon across the door of the new Office of New Haven Residents.
Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said the Elm City Resident Card acknowledges the presence of all the city's residents and, by bringing illegal immigrants out from the shadows, encourages the pursuit of opportunity.
Alderman Yusuf I. Shaw said it was a great day for the city and the country. "We believe services should be given to everyone equally," he said. "Everyone."
The banality quickly followed, as about 250 people lined up to apply for the cards, some waiting hours to slide their applications across the counter and proffer the other documents the city requires.
The program, more than two years in the making, is designed to provide identification cards to those who may not have them, including the elderly, children and illegal immigrants. Without identification, city officials say, many immigrants cannot open bank accounts and are easy targets for crime because of the cash they carry or keep in their homes.
But the cards also have come to symbolize something broader: an acceptance many illegal immigrants say they find elusive.
Luis Perez, a 26-year-old restaurant worker from Mexico, said as he waited Tuesday that he wanted an ID card for practical reasons, but also for political ones.
"I want people to understand that if we work together, we can overcome our situation in this country," he said.
Joan Whitney, 78, has a Connecticut driver's license, which illegal immigrants can't legally obtain, but showed up Tuesday to get her city ID as a gesture of solidarity.
"It's a fine idea," said Whitney, who has lived in New Haven for about 30 years. "It sort of equalizes everyone."
Opponents also have come to see the program in broader terms. Southern Connecticut Immigration Reform was a handful of people a month ago when the board of aldermen overwhelmingly approved the ID cards program, member Justin W. Gold said. Galvanized by the decision, it now has about 300 members, 50 of them dedicated "boots on the ground" types, he said.
New Haven officials say they have been contacted by several other cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas and New York City, that want to learn more about the program, which worries Gold.
"It's not just a fight in New Haven," he said. "This is sort of a Plan B amnesty if the national amnesty doesn't go through."
Gold estimated that about 100 people from his group demonstrated outside city hall Tuesday, although police estimated there were about 20 demonstrators. Exchanges between them and program supporters were frequent and lively, although police reported no problems.
Southern Connecticut Immigration Reform attracted some new supporters Tuesday, including Bulent Ozalp, who had come to city hall to pay the property tax on his car. He said he was a legal immigrant from Turkey and resented illegal immigrants getting an equal footing.
"I lost my job because of illegal immigrants," he said. "I'm struggling to pay my bills."
The card provides all holders access to city services, from parks to libraries, and functions as a type of limited debit card. Holders can deposit up to $300 on the card, to be used at about 50 participating businesses - such as cafes, restaurants and grocery stores - as well as some parking garages and parking meters.
City officials estimate that there are 10,000 to 15,000 undocumented immigrants living in New Haven, including people from Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and Colombia.
The new card costs $10 for adults and $5 for children; remaining program costs will be paid for with a $237,000 grant from the First City Fund Corp.
Southern Connecticut Immigration Reform has filed a request with the city, under the state Freedom of Information Act, for the names of everyone who applies for the card, a move Gold acknowledged was, in part, an attempt to discourage people from participating.
"We're illustrating a point," he said. "If we can get the information, imagine who else can get it."
Michael Wishnie, a Yale Law School professor who is representing the city free on immigration matters, said he is confident the list is exempt from the FOI law, based on exceptions for personal privacy and public safety.
But intimidation is a concern for program supporters, especially since two days after the city approved it, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents conducted a series of raids, ultimately arresting 32 people.
City officials said the raids were a retaliation for its decision; Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff denied that.
Twenty-eight of those detained have been released on bonds, with much of the money raised by the community, and Wishnie and other lawyers are seeking to have the cases dismissed. They say that agents entered homes without warrants and that some people arrested on the street were stopped based on race or ethnicity.
Kica Matos, administrator of the New Haven's Community Services Department and the city's point person on the ID program, said organizers will continue to work with community and faith-based groups to encourage participation.
She said almost all of the opposition has come from people who live in the suburbs, while city residents are overwhelmingly supportive.
The city has never offered a guarantee that the names of participants will not be released, but it is unlikely unless law enforcement officials make a specific request concerning a criminal investigation.
Rev. Jim Manship, of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Fair Haven, said he spoke about the cards Sunday to his congregation, which includes many immigrants, and applications were distributed. "People will come out," he said Tuesday. "These folks are incredibly resilient and incredibly hopeful."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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