How can communities manage undocumented immigrants? Keep an eye on Connecticut.

This Thursday, New Haven, Connecticut will mark its one-year anniversary as the first city in the nation to provide identification cards to undocumented immigrants which allow them access to local government services.

Despite harsh criticism and legal challenges the city has issued more than 6,000 Elm City Resident Cards since the program began last summer. Kica Matos, an administrator for New Haven’s Community Development Dept., says that the city has benefited along with immigrants, especially in crime prevention, because immigrants no longer fear that local police will turn them over to federal immigration authorities if they come forward with information about a crime. She has also taken New Haven’s program on the road. Matos just returned from a trip to California, where she advised cities including Los Angeles, on how to create their own identity cards.

Hartford, Connecticut is also considering a proposal that would allow the city to qualify as a so-called “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants.

The Hartford Courant reports that in Connecticut’s capitol, the city council held a public hearing yesterday on an ordinance to ban police from inquiring about immigration status and arresting undocumented immigrants, unless they are part of a criminal investigation.

Cesar Torres, an undocumented immigrant, who was turned over to immigration officials by local police after he was an eyewitness to a crime and deported to Peru, publicly testified that fear of the police had prevented undocumented immigrants from cooperating in criminal investigations. As part of the proposal to ban police from asking about immigration status, Hartford will also extend social services to undocumented immigrants.

On the other end of the spectrum, harsh efforts to crack down on undocumented immigrants in Prince William County, Virginia have been labeled as indicative of, “an ugly nativist strain,” by the Washington Post in an editorial yesterday. Undocumented immigrants have fled the county, the Post writes, because of measures designed to harass and humiliate them – such as one proposed by the county board of supervisors to install cameras in police cars so interrogations of immigrants can be taped. Police in Prince William County are authorized to ask immigrants about their immigration status before arrests, and social services have been withheld. Local religious leaders wrote to the county warning that the crackdown was eroding social cohesion. But county officials defend their efforts to make the area a place where immigrants without legal papers dare not tread.

There’s a debate emerging in communities across the nation – from border towns in the Southwest to old capitols in the Northeast – on how to “deal with” undocumented immigrants. Many local and state governments, in the absence of an overarching federal law, have acted on their own, either extending the welcome mat to immigrants or creating laws that border on xenophobia.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that over 1,100 state and local measures have already been proposed this year. Particularly vitriolic fights have raged in smaller towns such as Hazelton, PA, Livingston, NJ, and Farmers Branch,TX, where local anti-immigrant legislation has been met with legal challenges from civil rights groups.

But can there be a happy medium? A small city in Connecticut, Danbury, with a population of a little more than 30,000 and a growing Brazilian immigrant community may be a place to watch. In February, the city adopted a federal program called 287(g) which trains and deputizes police officers to enforce immigration law. The legislation created a storm of debate and vehement protests by the local Brazilian community. Several months later tensions appear to have cooled and it appears to be business as usual. Day laborers still gather every day on the grassy lawn off Main Street waiting for local businesses and residents to pick them up for work. The police drive by and generally don’t stop or conduct ID checks. Immigration status, at least for now, has yet to intrude on the daily routine.

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