FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — After years of Brazilian immigration to this town of about 65,000, people are still divided about whether to welcome or discourage newcomers. Town leaders have had to walk a narrow line between enforcing the laws and building trust with immigrants.
In downtown Framingham, early in the morning, men gather in front of a Brazilian bakery. They are day laborers. There are no laws in Massachusetts making it illegal to have a day-labor site, but it is still remarkably public in its location, right in front of Town Hall and blocks away from the police department.
“It’s a risk to be here,” says Melvin Jarquin, 24, in Spanish. The Guatemalan immigrant says he has been in Framingham two years, illegally. He’s waiting for a painting job.
Another man who has been in Framingham much longer — seven years — says he’s not worried about waiting here for work.
“I know the Framingham police only worry about people who are committing serious crimes,” says Francisco de Vasconcelos. The 31-year-old says he has been to court 15 times for driving without a license and driving while drunk, and he’s here illegally.
“They haven’t deported me. It’s a miracle.”
If you ask residents and lawmakers to describe the stance of town government toward immigrant residents, you get mixed responses. Some say it’s a “sanctuary town” and others say it’s “hostile”.
“I think Framingham is currently in search of an identity,” says David Magnani, who represented Framingham at the State House for 20 years. He says when Brazilians moved to Framingham in the 1990s, the town responded with ambivalence.
On the one hand, Brazilians started businesses and bought houses, putting down real roots, but on the other hand, many have been here illegally.
He says he imagines that some immigrants feel like it’s a “sanctuary,” but there is no agreement about that on the town level.
“I think that battle is being fought every day at the board of selectman’s office,” Magnani says. “I think it’s being fought every day in finance committee offices. I think it’s being fought every day in police departments. I think that question has not been resolved for the town at all.”
Take downtown, for example.
Chamber of Commerce leaders have long celebrated Brazilians in Framingham for starting mortgage companies, clothing stores, tax preparation offices and bakeries downtown.
Three years ago, on a tour of the downtown area, Ted Welte — then the president of the Metrowest Chamber of Commerce — said the town was “blessed.”
“The folks who have decided to pick Framingham as their place to come from other countries, are entrepreneurs, they’re hard workers, they don’t want to be on welfare, you know, they don’t want to take from society. They want to give,” Welte says.
According to an informal downtown business association, 85 percent of the businesses downtown are immigrant-owned.
But now, with a weak economy and many immigrants returning home, those same businesses are suffering, because they can’t attract Americans.
“We need American people to survive,” says Nubia Gaseta, who owns Party Flowers in downtown Framingham, “and now we are in a very, very bad situation.”
Gaseta says sales are down 50 percent this year.
“They don’t trust us,” she says.
While the Chamber of Commerce championed people like Gaseta for filling these vacant storefronts, some people in town have worried about who was starting these businesses and complained they didn’t do enough to cater to Americans.
“People call it ‘Illegalville’,” says town meeting member Dan Gittelsohn, referring to downtown and everything else that’s south of Route 9 in Framingham.
Gittelsohn wanted to question the immigration status of anyone wishing to open a store in downtown Framingham. But the measure didn’t pass.
“There are so many businesses along the way, that I don’t know what businesses they are. I can’t read them. I don’t understand what they’re saying,” says Gittelsohn, referring to the signs in many of the shops.
In fact, Gittelsohn would like police to ask immigrants about their status.
The chief of police has been willing to deal with immigration — but not in the way Gittelsohn would like.
For the record, the crime rate in Framingham is, on average, safer than in the rest of the state. Violent crime is lower, and property crimes are average.
In 2006, Police Chief Steven Carl, together with federal immigration authorities, went after illegal immigrants suspected of the most serious crimes. Carl lists them: “Crimes of gangs, guns, drugs and crimes of extreme violence.”
After a few years, the feds weren’t satisfied. They wanted Carl to investigate the status of every immigrant arrested. But he wouldn’t do it. So Carl severed his partnership with the federal government.
“Even if I said I wanted to do it, it’s financially outside the scope of our budget. We could never do it. Not right, not wrong — we could never do it. We could never engage. It would eat up our budget, because there are so many persons in this community.”
Asked if arresting and helping deport people would actually lessen his department’s workload — because he wouldn’t have to arrest people again — Carl disagreed.
“You have to hold them. You have to get them into Boston for the immigration court. You’re responsible for their medical care. You’re responsible for feeding them,” Carl says.
“At the same time, if a local police department is engaged actively, and as a primary mission is, ‘We’re going to deport people,’ you send a message to the immigrant community. Immigrants are in the community, they live here, and we depend on them not being afraid of us to call us when they see things go on that are crimes. We want them to call us. We don’t want them to be afraid that if they call us as we investigate their complaint, they might be deported.”
Carl continues to walk a fine line between enforcing the law and alienating immigrants. It’s telling that when he was asked about the day-labor site in downtown Framingham, he wouldn’t talk about it on tape. To him, Carl said it looks like guys just standing around drinking coffee. And he surmised that “hate groups” have spread the rumor that it’s a day-labor site.
Carl’s boss, the town manager, wouldn’t even talk to me about immigration. When I asked if he thought the town was a sanctuary or a law-and-order place, he said, “Why do we have to choose?”