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Boa vinda a Framingham!

DOWNTOWN Framingham, once a ghost town, is now a Little Brazil. Street-level reading material consists of storefront and church signs written in Portuguese. Want lunch? Get some Brazilian pizza. There's also an Asian grocery store and summertime concerts featuring rock 'n' roll music.

Framingham is a slice of multicultural America. And it's a battleground over illegal immigration that shows the need for sweeping reform.

Two sides of dispute
On one side of the fight are angry residents who want federal law enforced.

``This is all so corrupt, it's beyond human comprehension," Jim Rizoli says of the way undocumented immigrants have become part of the town's fabric. A candidate for state representative, Rizoli and others have been pressing city officials to crack down, pointing to overburdened schools and hospitals, and saying the city has become a ``slave work camp" that employs and underpays undocumented workers. He points to a study from Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies that says ``most" Brazilians living in the United States are undocumented. Others put the estimate at more than 70 percent.

Rizoli is part of a small, controversial group that opposes illegal immigration. They are frequently in the local news. They have a website . They have been accused of creating an air of intimidation. But for Rizoli, it's simple: No one says illegal immigration is wrong; no one says not to come, so he's going to speak up.

Many people oppose Rizoli. In 2003, town selectmen passed a proclamation that declared the town's respect for people of all backgrounds; its stand against bigotry, prejudice, intimidation, and hatred; and the civic intention to ``welcome the values and contributions of all who become a part of our community." But perhaps the most fascinating, if silent, opposition comes from the streets. In the 1990s, downtown Framingham lost businesses, leaving a dreary economic emptiness of boarded-up stores. Today, Brazilian businesses pump life into downtown. Brazilians buy homes and support the community. Framingham, like the rest of Massachusetts, needs immigrants to help fuel the economy.

One immigrant's experience
``Growing up was great. I loved it," says an 18-year-old undocumented immigrant who has lived in the town since she was 5. She says her parents brought her here from Brazil for a cousin's wedding, and the family stayed. In the fall, she'll go to one of the state's public colleges, where she will pay out-of-state tuition, because undocumented residents are ineligible for in-state tuition rates. She is bright and articulate --and in a few years she's going to hit a wall. Once she graduates, her lack of papers will make it difficult for her to get a job. Or if she were to do something as simple as driving, she would be doing so illegally and without insurance. She says she hopes she can get an internship and prove that she's indispensable to motivate her employer to help her legalize her status.

One immigration strategy being considered by Congress would simply deport her. Or, Framingham and other towns can wield local laws in ways that discourage undocumented people from moving in.

A better solution: The federal government could pass long and desperately needed federal immigration reform. Any bill that makes it out of Congress will be an imperfect compromise. But any progress would be welcome if it helps untangle the decades-old, messy contradictions of damning illegal immigrants while enjoying the fruits of their labor.

Rizoli is right on one point: It is unfair and unacceptable to skimp on the salaries of undocumented workers. Federal reform could pave the way toward paying them a decent, legal wage. That would be a human rights victory and a source of tax revenues. And there should be easier ways for children brought here by parents years ago to legalize their status. Massachusetts needs the additional workers.

Comprehensive federal reform would leave towns, cities, and states free to concentrate on being productive places to live.

``We have to break the wall between the Brazilian community and the rest of the community," says Ilma Paixao, president of the Brazilian American Association, which is located downtown. Paixao would like to see longtime Brazilian residents help newcomers engage in civic affairs .

``Learn English!" is a phrase that gets tossed at immigrants like a slur. Ironically, many immigrants concur. They want to learn English. They want more American-born English speakers to patronize their businesses. But the waiting list for English classes has hundreds of names on it. A small increase in public funding for these classes could help break down barriers.

A newcomers center
How can we all get along? This is what State Representative Deborah Blumer asks. She's working with the Framingham Public Library to set up a newcomers and neighbors center, a place for immigrants to meet people and get information about schools, healthcare, housing, and local banking services. Immigration status would not be checked. It would be a place that helps ``human beings deal with human needs," Blumer says.

Still, she says the challenge of cultural integration is ``bigger than the Brazilians," noting that social isolation is common, because many locally born people don't circulate far beyond their own religious, ethnic, and other social groups. That could change: With some 67,000 people, Framingham is small enough to do a better job of mixing its Unitarians, Jews, Pakistanis, African-Americans, Protestants, Elks, and Brazilians.

It's old news that this is a nation of immigrants. In fact, this is a whole world of immigrants, from the Brazilian who comes to Framingham to the American who works in Vietnam. United States law has to catch up to that fact, so its society can thrive.

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