Fatal Car Accident Sparks Debate Over Illegal Immigration

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Six communities around the state have asked to join a controversial federal fingerprinting program aimed at deporting illegal immigrants who have been charged with crimes. These jurisdictions want to join the program, called Secure Communities, before it becomes mandatory for all states in 2013. But one city isn't waiting.

The town of Milford is small. The latest Census says 25,000 people live in this community off Interstate 495 near Hopkinton. Town officials estimate 2,000 of them are from Ecuador. The men work in roofing, the women in service jobs.

After A Fatal Car Accident, A Crackdown On Illegal Immigration

In the decade since they started coming here, these immigrants have lived more or less peacefully. But last month, an illegal immigrant from Ecuador was charged for allegedly driving drunk and killing a motorcyclist. Since then, Ecuadorians have been the target of a campaign to crack down on illegal immigrants.

"We have tremendous pain. It's a situation in Milford that really has to change," said Dino DeBartolomeis, the chairman of the Board of Selectman in Milford.

"After the accident, I fear going outside on the street, because people yell insults, throw things at us from their cars."

Ecuadorian immigrant

"The attitudes. The behavior," continued DeBartolomeis. "And we're talking about illegal immigration. If someone's a bad person, committed something wrong, they've got to go. And we need your help to do that."

When he says "your help," he's reaching out to a surprising group of people: the government of Ecuador. Beatriz Almeida de Stein is Ecuador's consul in Boston. Last week, she met with DeBartolomeis and other officials at Milford Town Hall.

'Educating' Ecuadorians

"I think it's very important just to let them understand about here, about the laws," Almeida de Stein said. "They're here and they have to respect the laws."

De Stein said it would take time, but she would "educate" Ecuadorians living in Milford. That didn't seem to satisfy DeBartolomeis. He gave the consul one month to submit a report on what she's doing to fix the problem.

The problem, to some people, is a classic cultural clash.

Pablo Calle is the spokesman for the Ecuadorian National Secretariat of Migrants. He says these immigrants are indigenous, speak Spanish as a second language, and they face huge cultural obstacles. That's something he says other Milford residents don't get.

"They don't understand the settings they're from," Calle said. "Often times from rural settings, where they don't have the sophistication. They haven't even gone to the cities in their own countries, so it's very hard for them to understand how to behave in ways that are accepted where they live."

Still, no one at the meeting questions how a drunk driving accident — horrific as it was — became an argument against illegal immigration.

I ask DeBartolomeis after the meeting.

"I think that population of the Ecuadorian population in Milford, from what I've seen, from what I've been told, there's a problem with excessive drinking. There's a problem of driving without licenses," DeBartolomeis said.

Complaints Of Excessive Drinking, Driving Without Licenses

Milford's chief of police, Thomas O'Laughlin, said the perception of "excessive drinking" is likely based on complaints from residents about neighbors disturbing the peace. Many times those complaints are traced to homes of Ecuadorians after they've thrown a party. He said it's true that many are arrested for driving without licenses. But Ecuadorians are not arrested for drinking and driving any more than the rest of the population, according to O'Laughlin.

The night after the town hall meeting, Ecuador's consul in Boston met with about 100 men and women from Milford's Ecuadorian community. Speaking in Spanish, she told them to "behave," not to drink, not to drive without a license, to stay home.

Some men here had already considered giving up the bottle, but not drive? That's almost impossible, they say.

A 25-year-old single mother of two agreed. She doesn't want to use her name because she's here illegally, is afraid of losing her job and being harassed. She works at a hotel 30 minutes from Milford.

"Necessity obligates us to drive," she said. "If we don't drive, how do we work? How do we feed our kids?"

Still, she's ashamed of the alleged drunk driver who caused these problems for her and other Ecuadorians.

"There needs to be justice for the murderer. But they already have him. They shouldn't go after all immigrants. We're immigrants but we're not all murderers," she said. "So I ask for their forgiveness."

Another Ecuadorian in Milford said life here has become hostile. He doesn't want to use his name, because he's here illegally.

"After the accident, I fear going outside on the street," he said in Spanish. "Because people yell insults, throw things at us from their cars. I can't go out at night. If I do, I'm afraid they'll attack me and hurt me or my family."

This man said he will wait and see if the situation calms down. If it doesn't, he may join many of the other Ecuadorians who have left town. In which case, it seems Milford may cut down on the number of illegal immigrants without even changing a law or policy. Now, they're working on meeting with authorities from the Brazilian Embassy to talk about the large population of Brazilians living in Milford.

This program aired on September 13, 2011.


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