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Residents speak in favor of immigrant-friendly law

Published Aug 2, 2008 7:29 AM

Is defending the rights of undocumented immigrants an issue that only concerns [email protected] or only immigrants? Not if the July 21 public hearing before the Hartford, Conn., city council was any indication.

Nearly 150 people packed the sweltering council chambers for more than two hours as speaker after speaker urged the passage of an immigrant-friendly city ordinance that would bar police or any other city employees from asking residents about or providing information about immigration status to the federal government.

More than forty speakers, including whites, [email protected], African-Americans, West Indians and South Asians, repeatedly called on the city to respect and protect Hartford’s racial and cultural diversity with a law that would affirm that all city residents have equal rights to access services and participate in the community. Not a single person in the room spoke against the ordinance.

Among the most compelling speakers at the public hearing was Cesar Torres, a Peruvian immigrant who was deported in 2002 after he reported a murder to the Hartford Police Department. Both Torres and his attorney, Kristin Hoffman, described how his efforts to get justice for a friend led to his being separated for four years from his wife and newborn baby.

Several courageous undocumented immigrants who openly gave their names when testifying described Hartford immigrants living in rat-infested apartments without heat. Landlords threatened to turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they complained about these inhumane conditions.

Others spoke of employers who refused to pay wages that were owed and threatened to call the police if workers tried to hold them accountable. All the speakers emphasized that barring city police and other city employees from asking about immigration status would help to dispel some of the fear that keeps immigrant families living in the shadows.

The campaign for the ordinance was initiated by the Hartford Immigrant Rights Coalition, led by Hartford Areas Rally Together, and included the Center for Collaborative Justice, American Friends Service Committee, National Lawyers Guild, ACORN and others.

The ordinance was introduced by Luis Cotto, who was elected last November on the Working Families Party ticket. Working Families holds two of the nine council seats, the Democratic Party holds six, and the Republican Party only one. All but the one Republican council member have indicated their intent to vote for the ordinance.

If the ordinance is passed at the next city council meeting on Aug. 11, Hartford will be the second Connecticut city to affirm the rights of immigrant residents to equal treatment. Last year, New Haven introduced an Elm City ID Card that permits all residents to obtain an identification card that can be used to access city services as well as for other purposes. Immigrant activists and solidarity advocates say that a success in Hartford will increase the momentum for similar measures by other cities.