Looking the Other Way on Immigrants

Jason Castro-Loja gets a local ID card in Hightstown, N.J., where immigrants have access to city services without questions about their legal status.
Jason Castro-Loja gets a local ID card in Hightstown, N.J., where immigrants have access to city services without questions about their legal status. (Reporte Hispano)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

HIGHTSTOWN, N.J. -- After federal agents launched a massive raid on an apartment complex here two years ago, other illegal immigrants in this quiet town near Princeton University grew so wary of the law, authorities say, that many began hiding behind headstones in a local cemetery when patrol cars approached.

But these days, the immigrants of Hightstown are more likely to be the ones calling the cops.

In the aftermath of a series of raids in 2004, the town council in this historic borough of 5,300 -- transformed in recent years by an influx of at least 1,300 Latin Americans -- unanimously approved a sort of immigrant bill of rights. Joining a growing list of cities enacting a no-questions-asked policy on immigration status, Hightstown now allows its undocumented residents to officially interact with local police and access city services without fear of being reported to federal authorities.

It has opened new lines of communication here, officials say. One illegal immigrant at the complex where the raids were staged called on the police recently to help place a family member in alcohol rehabilitation; others have reported domestic abuse, extortion, theft and other crimes. Some are calling the town's pro-immigrant mayor for advice on City Hall weddings and landlord troubles. Hightstown has added services aimed at immigrants, including free bilingual computer classes last month. Noting the shift, one Spanish-language newspaper recently dubbed Hightstown the "Paradise Town" of New Jersey.

"People are talking about how the police here can be trusted, so I called them right after I was mugged," said Julio, 33, a Guatemalan illegal immigrant who was assaulted in Hightstown last year. He said he was robbed several times in Texas before moving to New Jersey three years ago, but was too fearful to call law enforcement there. Here, "they came out to meet me, made a report and gave me a ride home. They haven't caught the guys who did it, but at least I didn't feel like I was the one who committed a crime."

As Congress once again prepares to consider immigration bills, the debate is already playing on the nation's Main Streets, with liberal enclaves extending protections to illegal immigrants as conservative locales seek to push them out.

The country is deeply divided on immigration, with 29 percent of respondents in a December Washington Post-ABC News Poll calling immigrants "good" for their communities and an equal number describing them as "bad." About 39 percent said they make no difference.

With federal authorities enlisting local law enforcement agencies to act as their "eyes and ears" on the ground, a number of towns have responded with highly publicized zero-tolerance policies on illegal immigrants. In Hazelton, Pa., the Illegal Immigration Relief Act -- passed last year but being challenged in federal court -- denies licenses to businesses that employ illegal immigrants, fines landlords $1,000 for each illegal immigrant discovered renting their properties and requires that city documents be in English only. Other towns have deputized police officers to act as local immigration cops.

But equally fervent are a less well-known but fast-growing number of "sanctuary" cities and towns -- from Seattle to Cambridge, Mass. -- where local authorities are effectively rejecting the federal government's call for tougher enforcement and instead bestowing a measure of local acceptance.

In New Haven, Conn., for example, officials have prohibited police from asking about an immigrant's legal status, and in July the city will introduce municipal identification cards, providing undocumented immigrants with a "locally legal" form of ID that will make it easier for them to apply for bank accounts and sign rental leases. Overall, at least 20 cities and towns have approved pro-immigration measures over the past three years, according to the D.C.-based Fair Immigration Reform Movement. Analysts and advocates say almost as many -- including at least five in New Jersey, where about one in 17 residents is an illegal immigrant -- are considering similar resolutions.

"What we're seeing is a surge in immigration policy at the local level," said Michael Wishnie, a Yale University law professor who has worked with New York City on pro-immigration measures. "What they have in common is that mayors are basically saying, 'Look, this is a major issue for us, and if Congress can't fix it, we will.' "

Initially coined by immigrant groups in the 1980s, when a number of cities approved local laws granting a haven to the victims of civil wars in Central and South America, the term "sanctuary city" has been adopted in recent years by opponents of pro-immigrant ordinances. They argue that the new crop of towns approving such measures is effectively sanctioning illegal immigration.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company