With a president with anti-immigration policies now in the White House, the Town of Windham has quickly sprung into action to protect the rights of its large undocumented population.
This eastern Connecticut community, which includes the urban center of Willimantic, is home to Connecticut’s highest concentration of Mexicans, one of the groups President Trump has singled out for deportation during his rise to power.
Town leaders chose a course of action, the adoption of sanctuary city resolution on January 17, which has become a major thrust of pro-immigrant organizations, nationally and in Connecticut.
By invoking this status, a municipality or even a state, as is the case in Oregon, essentially distances local authorities from having to participate in federal immigration crackdowns or to detain undocumented immigrants involved in non-criminal incidents, such as a traffic citation.
What “got the ball rolling” in Windham was that Trump’s election was accompanied by the “demonizing of undocumented folks,” explained Yolanda Negron, a former member of Windham’s governing body who remains active politically and in community affairs.
“We have been very lucky that we have an amazing police department,” Negron said, adding that this agency, currently lead by Chief Roberto Rosado, maintains a good relationship with the immigrant community.
She also said the state has been great about passing laws, for example, against racial profiling. “But there was the concern that at the national level things could change,” she added.
Windham’s sanctuary city proposal, drafted by two council members who are attorneys, was taken up and passed early in January by the council’s Administration Finance Development and Health and Human Services Committee. The measure then went before the Town Council where it received a thumbs up three days before the presidential inauguration.
Not only did Windham’s resolution remove local police from direct involvement in federal immigration enforcement, it also included a provision for municipal identity cards, without specifying a timeframe for implementation.
While a local ID or a drive-only motor vehicle license, now available in Connecticut, does not confer any citizenship status, it enables undocumented residents to more open and greater accountability and contribute to the economic and social vitality of their community.
For Windham’s undocumented immigrants, like their 11.5 million counterparts around the nation, the months since the election of President Donald Trump have been a period of heightened anxiety and concern that the threatened mass deportations could uproot and even split families.
The extent of this despair became very apparent shortly after the Trump election, Negron recalled. Five immigrant families came to the Puerto Rico native’s home looking for help.
“The moms were in tears,” Negron recalled, as they asked the longtime political and civic activist if she was willing to take care of their children who were born in this country should their parents be deported.
She said she would be willing to take the children in and advised the parents to put this assignment in writing and to get help from an attorney to establish the youngsters’ legal residency.
“I felt anger that these families and others were going through this, sympathy because I feel so bad for them, yet honored that such trust was being placed in me,” Negron said.
The sanctuary city designation has become the most controversial and salient counter measure that many communities have rolled out to resist federal anti-immigrant policies. So much so, that the president and other administration leaders have threatened to retaliate by denying federal funds to sanctuary cities.
Connecticut is home to more than 105,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the Connecticut Immigration Rights Alliance. While this number represents a small portion of the more than 11 million people living in this country without legal authorization, there still has been heightened concern that the Trump administration and the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) might begin a wide-scale detention and deportation of immigrants without legal authorization to stay in this country.
In addition to urging the creation of more sanctuary cities, CIRA, the Working Families Party and other pro-immigrant organizations, have been pressing state lawmakers to approve a stronger Trust Act. Carlos Moreno, a representative of the Connecticut Working Families organization, said the goal is to have new Trust Act enacted that would effectively establish a sanctuary policy for the entire state.
Connecticut has been acknowledged as a leader in the protection of immigrants and their rights. In 2013, the state enacted the Trust Act which limits contact between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
In addition, the state Department of Motor Vehicles launched a drive-only license program two years ago which provides undocumented residents with an ID, greater mobility and easier access to jobs, but also calls for more responsibility. There also was concern that some immigrants were fleeing the scene of an accident because they lacked licenses or accepted identification.
Since January 2, 2015, the state Department of Motor Vehicles has issued 28,000 drive-only licenses and processed more than 34,000 drive-only learner permits.
On the municipal level, New Haven, Hartford and now Windham have been in the forefront of efforts to protect and assimilate undocumented immigrants
In 2007, New Haven became one of the nation’s first sanctuary cities and initiated the immigrant ID concept, later emulated by several major cities, with the introduction of the Elm City Residence Card.
The card addressed a variety of needs including making it easier for undocumented residents to do their banking, obtain library cards and use parking meters. In addition, the city wanted to counter the reluctance of some immigrants to go to local police if they were a victim of a crime.
Within five years, New Haven had issued 10,000 residence cards. The program is run by the city’s Administrative Finance Department and is supported by fees, $5 for children and $10 for adults. Attempts to obtain more up-to-date information from city officials were unsuccessful.
In Hartford, immigrant advocates are urging the City Council to update its sanctuary city policy. They have been working closely with Councilor Wildaliz Bermudez of the Working Family Party, Moreno said.
In addition, Hartford is establishing a program to offer IDs that can provide proof of residency and a valid ID. This program, to be overseen by the city’s community engagement department, is in the final stages of development and will be rolled out soon, said Alexandra Beaudoin, who works in Mayor Luke Bronin’s office as a special assistant to the chief of staff and as an intergovernmental affairs specialist.
In Windham, the sanctuary city resolution stated that municipal identification cards would become “available to residents upon proof of residency, regardless of immigration or citizenship status, as soon as it is practicable.”
For now, however, implementation of the identity card program remains on the back burner, according to town officials. A key word in the resolution is “practicable,” explained Councilman Dennis O’Brien, noting that the measure was drafted by two attorneys, himself and Councilman Charles Krich.
O’Brien credits Krich, who is an attorney with the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, with doing most of the drafting and fine-tuning of the resolution.
Meanwhile, in Bridgeport, the state’s largest city, residents and some local officials, including the school board and Councilman Jose Casco, have raised the subject of adopting a formalized sanctuary city declaration. However, Mayor Joseph Ganim has been reluctant to jeopardize his relationship with Trump that goes back to his earlier administration. A municipal ID program also is being considered, according to a representative of the mayor’s office.
The mayors of West Hartford and Middletown also have declined to embrace the sanctuary city approach while expressing support for their undocumented residents.
Wesleyan University in Middletown has declared that it is a sanctuary campus. The University of Connecticut in Storrs has declined to go that far, but its president has affirmed a commitment to protect undocumented students.
More recently, the Bloomfield town council unanimously passed a resolution that requires local officials, institutions, employees and law enforcement “to refrain from assisting in the enforcement of federal immigration issues or immigration and customs enforcement detainers, absent reasonable position that a crime has been committed or is likely to be committed.”