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Using Threats, N.Y. Landlords Feed Immigrants' Fear

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page A03

NEW YORK -- They sat there, three diminutive and worried Mexican women, in the shadows in the back pews of St. Jerome's Church in the Bronx. Father John O. Grange noticed and motioned them forward.

The women handed Grange a letter. They had asked for apartment repairs, and this letter contained what appeared to be the landlord's response.

Marielys Divanne, left, of South Bronx Churches works on behalf of tenants such as Sandra and Manuela, right. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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"Dear Tenants," the letter stated, "As you know the United States Government and specifically the Homeland Security Administration is investigating illegal aliens . . . I have given them all the information that I know about my tenants (age, names, work, cars, marriage, country of origin, telephone numbers, children) . . . You should expect a visit in the near future."

Grange, 64, forms a fist and frowns.

"Their hands were shaking as I read the letter -- they were scared stiff," said the priest, who is a founding member of South Bronx Churches, an ecumenical organizing group that is helping the women. "Evil has reared its head and threatens to ruin their hardworking lives."

Much has changed in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world of New York. There are subway announcements advising riders to watch for suspicious people and unattended packages. There is the shared memory of attacks past and the fear of more to come. And for some of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the city, especially those whose visa papers are not in order, the fear is doubled. They worry about more attacks and about those who might take advantage of them in these troubled times.

"This case in the Bronx is a particularly flagrant example of what our constituency faces with some frequency," said Andrew Friedman, co-director of Make the Road by Walking, an immigrant advocacy group that has worked with tenants in Brooklyn who have received similar verbal threats from landlords. "People put up with absolutely ghastly living conditions and feel they can't complain in this security-conscious world."

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund handled several cases in the past year in which landlords tried to intimidate Muslim tenants by threatening to call the FBI. An organizer who works with nannies said that such threats are common -- and that they recently won a court case for back wages against a tennis instructor who warned he would call the Department of Homeland Security.

"We hear about this quite often -- it's our main challenge, because employers know everyone is so scared now," said Ai-jen Poo, who works for Domestic Workers United in the Bronx. "Even people with legal green cards are afraid of deportation post-9/11. It's a double whammy because the economy isn't great."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in New York report often receiving tips from landlords. "It's very common to hear from landlords," said spokesman Michael Gilhooley. "But our inspectors are careful to balance the tips with the fact that New York has so many immigrants. We prioritize based on threats to public safety."

What is different about the case of the Mexicans in the Bronx is that they received a threat in writing. What is also different is that the tenants did not run. They stood up -- and the landlord seems to be standing down.

"We were scared -- on television you hear all the stories on immigrants and terrorists," said Sandra, 32, who asked that her surname not be used. The walls of her apartment are decorated with images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and the World Trade Center. "But the landlord's the one who acted like a terrorist."

Landlord Scott Kalb, who owns a dozen buildings in the South Bronx, said in an interview that he did not write the letter. It bears his return address and telephone number, and the type font is the same as his previous letters to tenants. In the interview he referred approvingly to the letter's message.

"It's a whole, big scare thing; you're trying to turn me into a dragon landlord," he said. In reference to his tenants, he said: "You are talking about people who don't even speak English, who are illegal immigrants just like the letter says. Tell me this: What do they know?"

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