US: towns rethink Laws Against Illegal Immigrants

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Sep 26 19:20:46 UTC 2007

September 26, 2007

Towns Rethink Laws Against Illegal Immigrants


RIVERSIDE, N.J., Sept. 25 A little more than a year ago, the Township
Committee in this faded factory town became the first municipality in New
Jersey to enact legislation penalizing anyone who employed or rented to an
illegal immigrant. Within months, hundreds, if not thousands, of recent
immigrants from Brazil and other Latin American countries had fled. The
noise, crowding and traffic that had accompanied their arrival over the
past decade abated. The law had worked. Perhaps, some said, too well.

With the departure of so many people, the local economy suffered. Hair
salons, restaurants and corner shops that catered to the immigrants saw
business plummet; several closed. Once-boarded-up storefronts downtown
were boarded up again. Meanwhile, the town was hit with two lawsuits
challenging the law. Legal bills began to pile up, straining the towns
already tight budget.  Suddenly, many people including some who originally
favored the law started having second thoughts. So last week, the town
rescinded the ordinance, joining a small but growing list of
municipalities nationwide that have begun rethinking such laws as their
legal and economic consequences have become clearer.

I dont think people knew there would be such an economic burden, said
Mayor George Conard, who voted for the original ordinance. A lot of people
did not look three years out. In the past two years, more than 30 towns
nationwide have enacted laws intended to address problems attributed to
illegal immigration, from overcrowded housing and schools to overextended
police forces. Most of those laws, like Riversides, called for fines and
even jail sentences for people who knowingly rented apartments to illegal
immigrants or who gave them jobs. In some places, business owners have
objected to crackdowns that have driven away immigrant customers. And in
many, ordinances have come under legal assault by immigration groups and
the American Civil Liberties Union.

In June, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against a housing
ordinance in Farmers Branch, Tex., that would have imposed fines against
landlords who rented to illegal immigrants. In July, the city of Valley
Park, Mo., repealed a similar ordinance, after an earlier version was
struck down by a state judge and a revision brought new challenges. A week
later, a federal judge struck down ordinances in Hazleton, Pa., the first
town to enact laws barring illegal immigrants from working or renting
homes there. Muzaffar A. Chishti, director of the New York office of the
Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit group, said Riversides decision to
repeal its law which was never enforced was clearly influenced by the
Hazleton ruling, and he predicted that other towns would follow suit.

People in many towns are now weighing the social, economic and legal costs
of pursuing these ordinances, he said. Indeed, Riverside, a town of 8,000
nestled across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, has already spent
$82,000 defending its ordinance, and it risked having to pay the
plaintiffs legal fees if it lost in court. The legal battle forced the
town to delay road paving projects, the purchase of a dump truck and
repairs to town hall, officials said. But while Riversides about-face may
repair its budget, it may take years to mend the emotional scars that
formed when the ordinance put us on the national map in a bad way, Mr.
Conard said.

Rival advocacy groups in the immigration debate turned this otherwise
sleepy town into a litmus test for their causes. As the television cameras
rolled, Riverside was branded, in turns, a racist enclave and a town
fighting for American values. Some residents who backed the ban last year
were reluctant to discuss their stance now, though they uniformly blamed
outsiders for misrepresenting their motives. By and large, they said the
ordinance was a success because it drove out illegal immigrants, even if
it hurt the towns economy.

It changed the face of Riverside a little bit, said Charles Hilton, the
former mayor who pushed for the ordinance. (He was voted out of office
last fall but said it was not because he had supported the law.) The
business district is fairly vacant now, but its not the legitimate
businesses that are gone, he said. Its all the ones that were supporting
the illegal immigrants, or, as I like to call them, the criminal aliens.
Many businesses that remain are having a hard time. Angelina Guedes, a
Brazilian-born beautician, opened A Touch From Brazil, a hair and nail
salon, on Scott Street two years ago to cater to the immigrant population.
At one point, she had 10 workers.

Business quickly dried up after the law against illegal immigrants. Last
week, on what would usually be a busy Thursday afternoon, Ms. Guedes ate a
salad and gave a friend a manicure, while the five black stylist chairs
sat empty. Now I only have myself, said Ms. Guedes, 41, speaking a mixture
of Spanish and Portuguese. They all left. I also want to leave but its not
possible because no one wants to buy my business. Numerous storefronts on
Scott Street are boarded up or are empty, with For Sale by Owner signs in
the windows. Business is down by half at Luis Ordonezs River Dance Music
Store, which sells Western Union wire transfers, cellphones and perfume.
Next door, his restaurant, the Scott Street Family Cafe, which has a
multiethnic menu in English, Spanish and Portuguese, was empty at

I came here looking for an opportunity to open a business and I found it,
and the people also needed the service, said Mr. Ordonez, who is from
Ecuador. It was crowded and everybody was trying to do their best to
support their families. Some have adapted better than others. Bruce Behmke
opened the R & B Laundromat in 2003 after he saw immigrants hauling trash
bags full of clothing to a laundry a mile away. Sales took off at his
small shop, where want ads in Portuguese are pinned to a corkboard and
copies of the Brazilian Voice sit near the door.

When sales plummeted last year, Mr. Behmke started a wash-and-fold
delivery service for young professionals. It became a ghost town here, he
said. Immigration is not new to Riverside. Once a summer resort for
Philadelphians, the town became a magnet a century ago for European
immigrants drawn to its factories, including the Philadelphia Watch Case
Company, whose empty hulk still looms over town. Until the 1930s, the
minutes of the school board meetings were recorded in German and English.

Theres always got to be some scapegoats, said Regina Collinsgru, who runs
The Positive Press, a local newspaper, and whose husband was among a wave
of Portuguese immigrants who came here in the 1960s. The Germans were
first, there were problems when the Italians came, then the Polish came.
Thats the nature of a lot of small towns. Immigrants from Latin America
began arriving around 2000. The majority were Brazilians attracted not
only by construction jobs in the booming housing market but also by the
presence of Portuguese-speaking businesses in town. Between 2000 and 2006,
local business owners and officials estimate, more than 3,000 immigrants
arrived. There are no authoritative figures about the number of immigrants
who were or were not in the country legally.

Like those waves of earlier immigrants, the Brazilians and Latinos
triggered conflicting reactions. Some shopkeepers loved the extra dollars
spent on Scott and Pavilion Streets, the modest thoroughfares that anchor
downtown. Yet some residents steered clear of stores where Portuguese and
Spanish were plainly the language of choice. A few contractors benefited
from the new pool of cheap labor. Others begrudged being undercut by
rivals who hired undocumented workers. On the towns leafy side streets,
some residents admired the pluck of newcomers who often worked six days a
week, and a few even took up Capoeira, the Brazilian martial art. Yet many
neighbors loathed the white vans with out-of-state plates and ladders on
top parked in spots they had long considered their own. The Brazilian
flags that flew at several houses rankled more than a few longtime

It is unclear whether the Brazilian and Latino immigrants who left will
now return to Riverside. With the housing market slowing, there may be
little reason to come back. But if they do, some residents say they may
spark new tensions. Mr. Hilton, the former mayor, said some of the illegal
immigrants have already begun filtering back into town. Its not the Wild
West like it was, he said, but it may return to that.


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