Immigrants Protest Bigotry in CT

by Jason Cain / July 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

Anti-immigrant xenophobia has surfaced across Connecticut in the past two months, activating a powerful and disciplined mass response from immigrants and their supporters.

The town of Danbury on the northwest border of the state has found itself in the eye of this storm. In April, Mayor Mark Boughton officially proposed that
state officials deputize local police with the authority of federal immigration agents. Only two states—Florida and Alabama—allow for such a policy,
though several state and local governments across the country are considering it.

Boughton defended his proposal by implying that immigrants strained city services, overcrowded housing units, and sent the price of education skyrocketing with their language needs.

In a disturbing twist, Boughton, who is running for re-election in November, also moved to crack down on volleyball games that draw large crowds of primarily Ecuadoran immigrants to improvised backyard courts. Boughton proposed a public nuisance ordinance that would grant police greater leeway to shut down the games.

Three days after Boughton’s an-nouncement, a right-wing populist group calling itself Connecticut Citi-zens for Immigration Control (CCIC) held its
first public meeting in a Danbury American Legion hall “to call attention to the problem of illegal immigrants in Connecticut.” Nearly 200 people attended.

The group’s co-founder, author Paul Streitz, is a proud participant in the Mexican border vigilante campaign known as the Minuteman Project. Streitz
frequently espouses the view that undocumented immigrants lower the standard of living of native-born workers.

His co-panelist in Danbury was Peter Gadiel, a board member of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, whose son died in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, a fact that he exploits to make outlandish statements linking 9/11 to anti-immigrant policies. “Open borders led to the deaths of 3000 Americans on 9/11,” Gadiel said in the Danbury
meeting.

The presence of a fascist group in Danbury, combined with Mayor Boughton’s repressive legal proposals, spread terror throughout the immigrant community. Danbury, like many towns in Connecticut, has seen a
large influx of Central and South American immigrants in the past several years. Of the 75,000 residents of Danbury, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 are immigrants, with Brazilians, Ecuadorans, Mexicans, and Dominicans
representing the largest groups.

Previous internal divisions over nationality, legal status, and relative affluence seemingly evaporated overnight. “Until now, we really didn’t meet with each
other,” said Breno Damato, owner and editor of the Portuguese-language weekly Comunidade News. “But now, the Hispanic community realizes it must be done.”

The middle-class layer of the Danbury immigrant community announced the formation of the Danbury Coalition for the Rights of Immigrants (DACORIM), and elected the Ecuadoran restaurant owner and former civic association president Wilson Hernandez as its spokesman. Hernandez announced there would be a silent “Danbury March for Unity” on June 12.

Meanwhile, CCIC called its second public meeting for May 24 in the liberal town of West Hartford, located on the outskirts of the state capital of Hartford,
more than 50 miles east of Danbury. Hartford area activists responded immediately, forming an ad hoc coalition of immigrants, progressive churches, labor unions, antiwar groups, and community organizations to
call a mass picket outside the CCIC meeting. The action was also intended to help build for the June 12 action in Danbury.

On the day of the meeting in West Hartford, nearly 300 people marched on the CCIC, asserting that no human being is illegal.

A contingent of Latino and Haitian immigrants led the march behind a colorful banner that depicted the Statue of Liberty as the famous Mexican religious
icon, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and proclaimed: “Equal Rights For Immigrants!” Another banner near the front proclaimed the slogan: “Unite and Fight for Jobs and Justice!”

The streets echoed with the spirited chant, “No Minutemen, no mas! No Minutemen jamas!” (“No Minutemen, No More! No Minutemen Ever!”) Approving honks issued forth from the stopped traffic and onlookers cheered.

Inside the meeting, an estimated 25 partisans attended, with a near-equal number of counter-protesters, who had filtered into the meeting during and after the picket. The pro-immigrant march was front-page news the following day. It lent a tremendous boost to area turnout for the June 12 action, and the Hartford coalition subsequently organized a caravan.

The “Danbury Unity March” turned out to be the largest mass political demonstration in that town since a famous strike of hatters in 1890. Three thousand people, nearly all of them immigrants, marched silently down Main Street in a sea of white t-shirts, which organizers had asked them to wear as a sign of peace.

Many of the participants marched in contingents grouped around large flags of their respective countries. Organizers had also distributed miniature flags of the United States, which many of the marchers carried.

It was a truly remarkable outpouring of mass opposition to anti-immigrant xenophobia by the very people being targeted. Immigrants of all ages
participated. Small children marched beside their parents, many of whom were pushing strollers. Groups of teenagers marched alongside community elders. This reporter personally witnessed dozens of fascinated onlookers step off the sidewalk to join the march and being welcomed with bursts of cheers from their fellow marchers, who would then have to be reminded that it was a silent march. Danbury police reported that the size of the march doubled between the start and finish. National media outlets carried
the story.

“Usually, politicians like to try to divide and conquer,” said Pastor Juana Jourdain Villavicencio of the Hispanic United Church of Christ in Danbury. “But in unity, we have conquered.”

Six days after the Danbury march, Connecticut Public Safety Commissioner Leonard C. Boyle announced he had rejected Mayor Boughton’s proposal to deputize local police officers to enforce federal immigration law. However, the wording of the rejection was ominous. “In short,” Boyle wrote, “given the extensive amount of training necessary to deputize state officers and the absence of any meaningful deportation process for illegal aliens who have not committed felony offenses, deputization would not seem to be a wise use of state resources.”

Only 20 people turned out to CCIC’s follow-up meeting in Danbury, which took place one week after the unity march.

“It’s way too premature to claim victory,” noted Marela Zacarias of the Hartford group Latinos Contra La Guerra. “Boughton’s proposal was not fundamentally rejected, and CCIC continues to organize and recruit.”

Indeed, the struggle continues. CCIC marched on the offices of Sen. Joseph Lieberman in Hartford on June 25. Lieberman endorses legislation that is basically a warmed-over version of President Bush’s guest-worker program. In the words of a CCIC leaflet, however, the legislation “amounts to treason” because it extends legal residency to undocumented workers who have lived
in the U.S. for six years and meet certain highly restrictive conditions.

Counter-demonstrators, who staged a lively picket line across the street from CCIC, outnumbered the anti-immigrant forces 100 to 15. A small contingent of protesters on the CCIC side identified themselves as followers of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.

“I’ll tell you what,” said one CCIC supporter, who was dressed as Uncle Sam. “Only one race bombed the Twin Towers.”

The Hartford counter-protest coincided with an evening forum on the defense of the immigrant community. Three prominent leaders in the fight for immigrant rights in Connecticut, including Wilson Hernandez of DACORIM,
announced at the forum that they would form a statewide quick-response network to fend off future anti-immigrant attacks. The network will be based on mobilizing masses of people in the streets to publicly defend immigrant rights against rightist threats.

Several Muslim and Arab activists were among those who attended the evening forum. They spoke during the discussion period about the need to join in struggle with the Latino community. CCIC has called its next public meeting for July 12 in the city of Watertown.