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Immigration Clash in Marlborough

A small city in the western suburbs is quietly becoming the unlikely setting for the immigration debate. As WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness reports, tension around immigrants — both legal and illegal — is breeding some fear and hostility.TEXT OF STORY:

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: I'm in downtown Marlborough and I'm right in front of City Hall. I just asked the city clerk how many people live here and she said well, "I guess we'll say 37,000 but you know we're not sure since there are so many people who live here legally and illegally who don't show up on census forms.
Outside just across the street on Main Street, you see a ton of Brazilian shops.

This is a boutique that sells Brazilian clothing and bikinis. It also offers translation services and money transfers back to Brazil. But right now, shop owner Lucinade Gregorio is worried about just keeping her business open.

LUCINADE GREGORIO: A mayoria dos clientes que ficam aqui esta com medo e os commerciantes estao com medo de que vaya acontecer.

TONESS: She says most of her clients are talking about leaving Marlborough and shop-owners think they'll have to shut down.

That's because a city councilor is trying to open a local branch of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement department to discourage illegal immigrants from living here.ARTHUR VIGEANT: I cant possibly worry about illegal customers going into a store and whether that store's going to survive or not.

TONESS: Arthur Vigeant is Marlborough's City Council President.

VIGEANT: The legal population shouldn't worry at all, not in the very least. This isn't aimed at them.

TONESS: Vigeant tried last year tried to stop immigrants without social security cards from getting city licenses to open businesses. But that got bogged down in questions over whether it's legal.

Now he says he's willing to pay $200,000 of city money to bring an immigration office here. It will pay for itself, he says, since he believes illegal immigrants put a disproportionate strain on hospitals, education, and other services. More than 11 percent of students in Marlborough public schools are not proficient in English. That's twice as many as the state average.

VIGEANT: We want everyone on a level playing field. Everyone's paying their taxes, income taxes, real estate taxes and living the way and assimilating to the way we do things in the community.

TONESS: And so far, Vigeant has a lot of support. All but one council member agreed to pursue the idea and ask the mayor to look into the logistics. Immigration authorities won't say whether this is even possible. Whether it is or not, Vigeant has gotten more positive feedback from the community on this issue than on just about anything in his 14 years on the council.

VIGEANT: I think language has a lot to do with it. I just see the people who've been here all their lives and they're seeing their neighborhoods change and they get a little frustrated.
We're just trying to help them out with that, see if we can do something about it....

TONESS: You know most of the things you bring up just have to do with people who are immigrants, no necessarily illegal, you
brought up the neighborhood, you brought up the language.

VIGEANT: But, isn't it up to the immigrant population to...like I've mentioned it many times, assimilate to the commmunity.

TONESS: Marlborough has changed a lot in the last 25 years. This former shoe-manufacturing town has attracted high-tech and financial services companies such as Raytheon, Hewlett Packard and Fidelity. With that, the median income has shot up and there's a need for more serviceworkers like housecleaners and landscapers.

ILTON LISBOA: People have the notion that they're all illegals. I can tell you that very few of them are illegals.

TONESS: Ilton lisboa was one of the first Brazilians to arrive nearly two decades ago. He started as a dishwasher, but now works as a manager for the hospitality company Sodexho. He's also the unofficial spokesman for the Brazilian community.
He says there are 7,000 to 10,000 Brazileiros living in Marlborough. At first they came for just a few years.

LISBOA: After the 90s people come here from Brazil to stay here, invest here, buy property here.

TONESS: As the community has grown, so has the tension.

CHRISTOPHER ANTAL: You see this flag?

TONESS: Earlier this year the host of a local cable show, appeared to urinate on the Brazilian flag during one of his broadcasts.

ANTAL: I have no respect for people who sit around on their lazy butts, sit around collecting money that I have to pay...

TONESS: Lisboa organized a protest and the host was pulled off the air.

LISBOA: We felt that would make history, and now it's the immigration issue again. And we are not sitting and watching this thing without talk to officials about it.

TONESS: Across town, in a neighborhood with a high concentration of rental apartments, some of these tensions play out everyday.

Some say that immigrants cram too many people in a single apartment and don't take care of their homes.

Dawn Santos shares a two family house with her parents. She says her mother and father complain that the neighbors don't mow the lawn and don't speak English.

SANTOS: For me as a parent, I think school is the only issue I have. I know a lot of times they take money out of the programs to set aside for classrooms to teach some of the kids to speak English. But I feel like they should already speak English if they're in school already. But
I wouldn't try to round them all up and make them go somewhere. I would just hope someone would figure out a way to teach them English without taking away money from our kids.

TONESS: This neighborhood used to be called French Hill. Councilor Vigeant — whose family originally hailed from France — grew up here.

And so did Gene Rano, who's sitting on a neighbor's front porch.

GENE RANO: Anything that goes wrong in this town, they always blame an immigrant. It's more like the people who've been here 30, 40 years who are upset....because you got young people from foreign countries that are here, buying homes, trying to earn a living and raise their families. If a property's for sale and somebody wants to move in, it don't matter where they come from. They're paying their bills and paying their taxes. Leave 'em alone.

TONESS: Rano's family is from Italy, and he says his parents still speak with thick accents. Back when he was growing up in French Hill, Rano says neighbors blamed the Italians — and anyone who wasn't French or Irish --for problems in the neighborhood.

CLARIFICATION: The host whose local-access cable television show in Marlborough went off the air after he allegedly urinated on a Brazilian flag says he was not pulled off the air but suspended the program voluntarily.

This program aired on June 28, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Bianca Vázquez Toness Twitter Reporter
Bianca Vázquez Toness was formerly a report for WBUR.

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