In Milford a year ago, tensions over illegal immigration peaked when a young motorcyclist was hit and killed by an alleged drunk driver, here illegally from Ecuador.
Now the central Massachusetts town is the first community in New England to sign on to a federal program that's designed to crack down on the hiring of illegal immigrants.
The IMAGE Program
At Gallo Moving and Storage in Milford, customers' packed-up belongings are stacked floor to ceiling in a colossal warehouse. Workers use forklifts to move plastic-wrapped couches and massive wooden crates.
Owner Tony Gallo says he requires all of his employees and contractors to provide documents to show they're in the U.S. legally — documents he then has an outside company verify. And he says at first, he didn't like the thought of the federal government double-checking his due diligence.
"Everybody thinks it's, 'Oh yeah, government overreach, here we go again,' " Gallo said.
But after learning about a program run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to help prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants, Gallo says he plans to sign up.
"We want to keep a level playing field, so if somebody's out there paying guys cash under the table, that's hurting my business, because I can't compete with that," Gallo explained.
The program is known as IMAGE — ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers. Employers who take part receive training on the effects of illegal hiring. They also learn how to confirm the immigration status of prospective employees through tools such as the Department of Homeland Security's E-Verify website. As well, participants agree to have their businesses audited to make sure their current employees are legal.
Milford itself, which employs more than 1,500 people, has become the first town or city in New England to sign on to the IMAGE program. That, even though you wouldn't think the government would hire undocumented workers.
"Well we hope we don't. We'll find out," said Brian Murray, the chairman of the Milford Board of Selectmen. According to Murray, immigrants here illegally put a strain on the town's services, including police.
Reaction Differs In Milford
Last August, police say, an undocumented Ecuadorian immigrant hit and killed a 23-year-old motorcyclist while driving drunk. Murray says that victim was one of three people killed in Milford in recent years by illegal immigrants driving without a license.
And then, he says, the school system also faces challenges.
"I think just the culture and tradition changes don't translate well when people simply jump on a plane or boat or whatever, come here, and then plop into the community," Murray said. "So consequently I know the school department has to allocate resources and personnel to try to acclimate these people and provide them the services that they do need for their children."
At Bill's Pizza on Main Street, employee Joseph Ramalhete has sympathy for the immigrants. He thinks the government should help those already here get legal status quickly so they can work.
"It's better than them stealing, robbing. They're going to be here. They need to eat. They need to live, you know," Ramalhete said.
Ramalhete came to the U.S. from Brazil as a child, with his parents. They came here legally, he says. And he agrees with the restaurant's manager, Girgis Wasef, who was selected in an immigration lottery and came here from Egypt with his wife and kids five years ago. Wasef is now a U.S. citizen and says the legal way is the right way to do it.
"A lot of people, they have paper, they're looking for work and can't find it because too many illegal aliens, they've got their jobs," Wasef said. "I'm not against them."
The special agent in charge of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations in Boston, Bruce Foucart, was on hand to sign the agreement with Milford town leaders Monday night. He says he hopes towns and business owners will wear their employment compliance like a badge of honor.
"Illegal immigrants have to buy documents to work, fraudulent documents," Foucart explained. "And they're criminal organizations that are selling that. They're not vetting who they're selling these documents to. They could be selling them to a public safety threat or a national security threat. And so when you have a legal and compliant workforce, you take away that threat."
The Milford Area Chamber of Commerce is on board, and in fact first held a seminar to inform its members about the ICE program four years ago. Asked if the program might suggest the town and its business community are hostile to immigrants, the chamber's president and CEO, Barry Feingold, says Milford is anything but. The town, he says, was built by immigrants.
"It really was with the Irish, people of Irish descent and Italian descent," Feingold said. "And then you had the Portuguese, and now you have the Brazilian and and the Ecuadorian, and they're very hard-working people. But if you're here, and you know you're here illegally, if you expect to get a job illegally, well that's not the way it works."
Back at Gallo Moving and Storage, Tony Gallo says he might feel some sympathy if he finds out one of his workers is illegal.
"If there's a couple people out there sneaking through the cracks and we catch them, then we get them and we just tell them, 'Hey, here's the way it is, guys: Either go get yourself legal, and we'll help you do it if we can, or, you know, I have to let you go,' " Gallo said.
Under the federal program, businesses found to have more than 50 percent illegal workers will face fines. And ICE says it will only prosecute or deport immigrants who are convicted criminals or wanted for crimes other than being illegal.
This program aired on August 21, 2012.