Issues and challenges

Milford’s melting pot boils over

Influx of illegal immigrants spurs resentment

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / July 13, 2010

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MILFORD — On a small plot in grassy Fino Field, near where they play volleyball, a group of Ecuadorans planted a heart-shaped flower bed. It was a goodwill gesture to an adopted home where many townsfolk resent their presence.

A day later, only mulch and a few stubs remained, the flowers ripped out and the mini-fencing dumped in a trash barrel.

“They’re disappointed,’’ said the Rev. Manuel Clavijo, associate pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Church, where immigrants, many in this country illegally, worship. “It was meant to be a sign of their commitment to the town, that they can contribute.’’

Thomas O’Loughlin, the police chief and a moderating force in this working-class town of about 27,000, was blunter: “It appears to be an act of vandalism, which adversely affects us as a community when people are trying to do good things.’’

The tensions that sometimes boil over in Milford are simmering in other towns across the state, turning immigration into a key issue in state political races this year.

The Legislature passed a budget with language specifying restrictions on public benefits available to the estimated 150,000 to 250,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts. It was a watered-down version of a tougher amendment passed in the Senate, stirring passionate debate about illegal immigration in an atmosphere made more combustible by a combination of high unemployment, strained-to-the-limit state and local budgets, and election-year politics.

The issue has emerged in the campaign for governor. The challengers, Republican Charles D. Baker and independent Timothy P. Cahill, backed the Senate proposal. The incumbent, Democrat Deval Patrick, signed the budget saying it basically formalizes procedures already in place to screen applicants for public benefits.

For all the complaints today about illegal immigrants in town, Milford, which is located about 16 miles southeast of Worcester, celebrates its rich history as an immigrant gateway. There are monuments paying tribute to the Irish, Italian, and Portuguese immigrants who began arriving here a century or more ago.

In the melting-pot enclave of Prospect Heights, a World War II memorial honors “those who came to America to find freedom and a better life.’’ The monument is adorned with ceramic flags of the nations they came from: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Armenia, Poland, and Greece.

“It’s resentment people feel, not hatred,’’ said Marie Parente, a former Democratic state representative who for years has been the town’s most vocal critic of illegal immigration. “People are resentful at the number of public programs that are used by this population,’’ she said. “We’re allowing lawbreakers to access our programs.’’

“We’re opposed to illegal immigration . . . because it’s illegal,’’ said John Seaver, a former selectman. “We don’t think citizens and legal immigrants who play by the rules and get in line should have to compete with illegal immigrants for scarce public services such as emergency room treatment and public school services.’’

Undocumented immigrants are not entitled to welfare-type cash assistance or food stamps. Under a US Supreme Court ruling, they may enroll in public schools. And under other court rulings or statutes, if they are poor or meet certain income guidelines, they can receive free treatment in emergency rooms, medical and nutritional aid for low-income children and mothers, and obtain public housing in state-funded developments.

Edward Bertorelli, former treasurer of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said “people are torn’’ in Milford over the issue because “Milford has always been welcoming.’’

But Bertorelli, a grandson of Italian and Irish immigrants, said a flood of illegal immigrants several years ago created a “very dangerous overcrowding’’ problem when landlords and sometimes tenants began to turn multifamily homes into lodging houses, illegally creating groups of one-room units in a single apartment.

A spike in tuberculosis cases, peaking at nine in 2005, also caused alarm.

The town responded with a bylaw mandating inspections and requiring landlords to obtain permits that established a maximum number of occupants per unit. The inspections began in 2007, said Paul Mazzuchelli, Milford’s director of health.

“What we witnessed most of all were unsanitary conditions the tenants were living in,’’ said Mazzuchelli. “Who was the victim? It was the tenant. They were immigrants. They were scared. They weren’t going to complain.’’

There are more than 4,000 rental units in Milford, and Mazzuchelli said that after inspections turned up about 150 violations, conditions improved. “Complaints are down significantly from more or less several a week to maybe several a year now,’’ he said.

There is no reliable data on the number of illegal immigrants in Milford or anywhere else in the United States, for that matter. But many local officials believe the number has dropped sharply, particularly among Brazilians, since the economy tanked in late 2008.

O’Loughlin estimates there are between 2,000 and 2,500 Ecuadorans and more than 1,000 Brazilians still residing in Milford, down from perhaps double that total two years ago. Most are here illegally, the chief said.

State data for 2008-09 show that 17.2 percent of the students in the town’s public schools speak a first language other than English, about 12 percent higher than the statewide average. The figure has increased in nine of the last 10 years.

The Ecuadorans are the most visible and isolated of the linguistic minorities in Milford. Many are members of indigenous tribes in Ecuador’s rural interior, and some arrived here illiterate, speaking neither English nor Spanish but one of the unwritten Quechuan dialects of South America’s Andean region.

The factory and quarry jobs that drew the early European immigrants to Milford are gone, and the Ecuadoran men work mostly as roofers or construction workers on jobs all over New England. They stand out around town in their “ladder trucks,’’ scores of vans or pickups topped with ladders on racks.

In interviews with some of the Ecuadorans who were at Fino Field watching the volleyball games on a sweltering evening last week, some said they feel unwelcome in Milford but intend to stay.

“People who come here come here for the opportunity, but the other people don’t seem to like it,’’ one woman, named Asistena, said in Spanish. She said she works at a fast-food restaurant and stays in Milford because of her 5-year-old son, Victor, who was born here and understands English.

Manuel, a 29-year-old construction worker conversant in English, has been in Milford illegally for eight years. He said he works with Americans and considers them friends, but he and other Latinos say they feel unfairly harassed at times. Because they are here illegally, they feel powerless to complain, he said.

“It’s hard because nobody has papers,’’ Manuel said in Spanish.

Whether illegal immigrants should be eligible for a driver’s license — they are not now in Massachusetts — is an issue in Milford.

Between 2001 and 2007, Milford District Court Clerk-Magistrate Thomas Carrigan gauged how many defendants charged with operating without a license also had no Social Security number, a tell-tale sign of undocumented status. Sampling every fifth case, the office found the number increased from 10 out of 26 cases in 2001, a rate of 38 percent, to 163 of 183 in 2007, an 89 percent rate.

“We deal with it every day,’’ said O’Loughlin, an advocate for issuing specially coded licenses to illegal immigrants because it would identify who they are and where they live.

“Whenever there’s an accident or a traffic stop, they don’t have a license,’’ he said. The offense generally results in a $250 fine, O’Loughlin said, noting that an undocumented immigrant may legally buy, register, and insure a vehicle but not drive it.

“When I say they should be able to get licenses, I get a barrage of hate mail,’’ O’Loughlin said.

Like many local officials, the police chief is frustrated by the dysfunctional quality of the country’s immigration laws and enforcement at the federal level.

“It’s not my job to enforce federal law; it’s their job,’’ said O’Loughlin. “They’re failing miserably.’’

Last fall, a Milford man, Richard Grossi, died of injuries suffered after his vehicle was hit by a car driven by an unlicensed Portuguese woman who has been in the country illegally for several years. Police said Maria Leite admitted running through a stop sign. On July 1, after a hearing in the Milford court, she was taken into custody by federal immigration officers pending trial on a charge of motor vehicle homicide.

Such cases often spark an outraged and inflammatory response from residents, exacerbating tensions.

While there are outspoken critics of the immigrants in Milford, there are many others trying to help them assimilate.

At St. Mary’s, many find help and a haven. Father Manny, as Clavijo is known, oversees a large Hispanic ministry that reaches out to other immigrants, too.

On a weeknight last month in the parish center hall, the 33-year-old native of Colombia participated in a graduation ceremony for dozens of students in a growing English as a second language program.

Staffed entirely by volunteers, including 35 teachers, the program started a year ago with about 40 students, has grown to more than 300, and has a waiting list of 70. Twice a week, for 90 minutes a night, the immigrants, not all of them illegal, come to St. Mary’s to become more proficient in English. Some of the Quechuan-speaking Ecuadorans started by learning the alphabet and numbers.

“My hope is to help them in any way I can,’’ Clavijo said of his immigrant flock. “They don’t have Social Security numbers, and they don’t pay [income] taxes, but if you give them the opportunity to give back to the town and embrace them, the outlook will be different.’’

Globe correspondent Marissa Lang contributed to this report.

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