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.
"You have cities facilitating the violation of federal law and tying the hands of their police forces in terms of when they can or can't ask about legal status," said Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies. "You're also talking about a group of people who often work off-the-books but are getting access to expensive city services. It's not fair to everyone else paying the bill."
Hightstown Mayor Robert Patten, who hails from the core German-Irish stock in this heavily Democratic town, sees things differently. The town square, once peppered with empty storefronts, is brimming with new Latin American restaurants and remittance centers. Last year, the town closed the streets for an Ecuadorian festival that brought together hundreds of residents.
"Most of us know this town would have a heck of a time trying to run itself these days without the immigrants," said Patten, a Republican. "They're working at the grocery stores, the fast-food places, they're opening businesses and keeping this town alive and young. We're just being practical by telling them, 'Look, we want you in our community, and we want you to feel like you belong.' "
Patten and his wife, Kathy, have taken Spanish classes and given their personal phone numbers to immigrants. The mayor helped secure the release of one Hightstown immigrant seized by immigration authorities in 2005 in a case of mistaken identity.
At a city-sponsored health fair at Hightstown High School last month, dozens of immigrants showed up for free medical checks by a local doctor, while a local police officer roamed the halls to engage residents. "¿Como esta?" Patten repeated in American-accented Spanish as he went through the crowd, receiving pats on the back, hugs and kisses.
"I feel I can get help in this town," said Sonia, a 34-year-old from Ecuador who, like all illegal immigrants interviewed here, declined to give a last name. After getting an HIV test, she was in line to take her infant son for a doctor's visit. "These are things I could never afford. I don't have health insurance, and I'm afraid to go to the county hospital. I don't know what kind of paperwork they ask for. I feel more comfortable here. No forms. No questions. You just have to come in."
As police have promised to refrain from asking about immigrants' legal status, authorities say communication between undocumented residents and local law enforcement officials has markedly improved. Although police here concede that they must cooperate with federal agents possessing outstanding warrants for illegal immigrants, they say they will arrest immigrants or report their undocumented status only if they are caught committing a criminal offense.
Maria, 23, who arrived in Hightstown from Ecuador two years ago, was persuaded by a bilingual volunteer police liaison to call police after $3,000 was stolen from her family's apartment last November. Most of the undocumented families here, whose status makes it difficult to open bank accounts, keep the money they earn -- from jobs in a local packaging factory -- at home, living in constant fear of robbery.
"We are so vulnerable because of our status that the idea of calling the police is still a little frightening," Maria said. "But we realize now that if we don't, there's no chance of justice. And if we do, they are going to at least try to help us -- not arrest us for being victims."