Published in the Herald News, Sunday, August 13, 2006
A town divided
By SAMANTHA HENRY
RIVERSIDE -- Everybody needs a haircut, Weder Mendes likes to point out, whether they are a legal or illegal immigrant, American-born, or a new arrival.
But the chairs at the Touch From Brazil salon where Mendes works were empty on a recent day; the appointment book was full of crossed-out names.
"My clients call and ask: 'Weder, can I come over there?' And I tell them: 'Yes you can, nothing is going to happen to you,'" he said in his native Portuguese. "But they are afraid to even leave their homes."
On July 26, the township council unanimously passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, a local ordinance that makes it a crime to help illegal immigrants in any way.
The ordinance has triggered a seismic upheaval in this tiny Burlington County hamlet of 8,000 by the Delaware River, and attracted nationwide attention. Advocacy groups vowed to make the township and its ordinance a line in the sand in the battle over immigration.
"Riverside is America, and we cannot let this happen, even if it's a small town in America," said the Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders. Rivera's group plans to file suit against the township in federal court on Monday. A spokesman for New Jersey's Office of the Attorney General said the Division on Civil Rights is also reviewing the ordinance.
The township's 3,500 undocumented immigrants are mostly from Brazil. Both legal and undocumented immigrants have been fleeing in droves since the ordinance passed. Those who remain say they are terrified of what might happen next.
"We Brazilians don't know why this has happened," said Mendes, 22. "The Americans scream at us in the streets: 'Illegals go home!' It's pure racism."
Neither Riverside Mayor Charles Hilton nor township solicitor Doug Heinold responded to interview requests.
Supporters say it's time
Riverside's ordinance was passed just weeks after a similar anti-illegal immigrant ordinance was enacted in Hazelton, Pa. Riverside's ordinance makes it a punishable offense -- subject to fines up to $2,000 and jail time -- to either employ or rent property to anyone who cannot prove they are in the United States legally. The ordinance's stated aim is to "abate the nuisance of illegal immigration." Writing in the ordinance blames the town's undocumented population for stretching schools and public services thin, increasing crime and negatively affecting the quality of life for legal residents.
Supporters of the ordinance said it's the pace of the recent influx -- Brazilian migration to the town started accelerating after the year 2000 -- that has alarmed many old-time residents.
"It's just the way they took over, you know what I mean?" said Anthony D'Agostino, 69, who has owned Tony's Barbershop for 41 years. "They want to change everything. They opened their own bank, their own Laundromat, their own supermarket. I can't understand how they got to pick Riverside, I mean, what's here?"
D'Agostino cited apartment overcrowding, congregating in groups, driving cars with out-of-state plates and a perception that most illegal immigrants don't pay taxes or strive to learn English as some of the reasons for supporting the ordinance.
Like many aging New Jersey towns, Riverside's once-plentiful mills gave way to nearby strip malls that dragged local businesses under. After years of blight, residents said, Brazilians starting arriving in the mid-1990s in the footsteps of a small Portuguese immigrant community that had emigrated from Europe in the 1960s.
Now, the main street through the town is dominated by Brazilian- and Portuguese-owned shops and ethnic restaurants.
Nevertheless, anti-immigrant sentiments are rife in Riverside, and on blatant display, emboldened by an ordinance that faults undocumented aliens directly for most of the town's ills.
"They smell, they don't take showers. I sit next to one of them in biology," said Don Strain, a 16-year-old sophomore at Riverside High School. "I'll be in class and the teacher will have to go 20 lessons back to explain every word in the dictionary to new kids from other countries."
Strain said he thought the ordinance was a good first step. "There should be an immigration station in Riverside," he said.
A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that the agency had conducted a recent raid in Riverside in search of an immigrant fugitive, but instead arrested 13 undocumented immigrants they found at the targeted address.
Opponents say it's racism
Word of the ICE raids and fear of backlash from the ordinance has sent many immigrants, both legal and illegal, into hiding.
A recent beautiful summer evening found front porches empty, children's scooters leaning against houses, and piles of furniture and belongings on front sidewalks -- evidence, neighbors said, of the families who had fled in the middle of the night, leaving everything behind.
One family from Ecuador was found sitting on a bench along the town's main street, enjoying the evening air and chatting quietly in Spanish, as a group of white teenagers circled them slowly on their bicycles.
David Verduin, who was raised in Paterson but now lives in Riverside and represents the Riverside Coalition of Businessmen and Landlords, said the meeting at which the ordinance was passed was a low point in the town's history.
"I haven't seen the hatred in faces like I did at that meeting of the small group that was pushing for this," Verduin said. "The last time I saw that was the hatred on the faces of those on the sidelines when people marched in Selma, Alabama. I saw that same kind of hatred that shows there are racial connotations to this situation."
Verduin said his group has also contacted a lawyer to fight the ordinance, and was dismayed that their offers of working with the town to address some of the concerns about the immigrant community through dialogue and outreach had been rebuffed.
"I honestly think they didn't think there was going to be a fight," Verduin said of the council and the mayor. "They made this ordinance thinking they wouldn't enforce it, they'd just do this and all the immigrants would run and it would be over. I think they thought it would just go away."
Immigrant business owners say they have transformed what was a bankrupt former mill town full of "for rent" signs into a vibrant downtown corridor that fuels the local economy.
"Four years ago, I came to see the town with my brother. We were looking for a place, and it was all empty," said Franco Ordo who emigrated from Ecuador to the U.S. 17 years ago. Ordois the owner of King Chicken Churrascaria, a restaurant along the main shopping street in town. "Everyone in Riverside knows we revitalized this place." Ordonez said even legal immigrants like himself are deeply offended by the ordinance and worried that it will destroy the local economy. He said his business, like many on his street, is off by more than 60 percent since the ordinance passed.
"It's a dangerous situation; we're playing with democracy, we're playing with peace," he said. "We're bringing the roots of racism back again. We need to live in peace and take care of our neighbors."
Locally, church leaders in the town, including a priest who conducts Portuguese-language Masses, have been trying to calm people's fears and answer questions from all sides. Undocumented immigrants want to know if they can bring their children back to school. Legal residents wonder if they are obliged to turn people in.
"Riverside is a small town, and because it's a small town, the people who are the most afraid always make the most noise," said the Rev. Daniel Fink of St. Casimir R.C. Church in Riverside. Fink was a priest at St. John Kanty R.C. Church in Clifton. "Fear causes rumors; it can become almost like a witch hunt. The tensions are rising and it could almost become a mob -- it easily could derail if cooler heads don't prevail."
A nation watches
Congress suspended its debate over illegal immigration for the summer without passing any legislation. That has led several communities like Riverside to consider passing their own anti-illegal immigrant measures.
Riverside is the first township in New Jersey to pass such an ordinance. Besides Hazelton, anti-illegal immigrant ordinances have been introduced in towns in Florida and California, but are being challenged in court.
Riverside's ordinance has even made the national news in Brazil.
The organization of Hispanic clergy, CONLAMIC, is trying to mobilize support for a march on Riverside for Aug. 20. The group hopes to draw thousands to the tiny town to send a clear message that such ordinances should not be allowed to stand. Organizers complain the township has not responded to several requests for a permit for the protest.
CONLAMIC is also building an argument it plans to unveil in federal court that municipalities cannot legislate on issues under federal jurisdiction.
"I'm hoping it will be a test case for New Jersey, and if we're victorious, hopefully it could be applied to other parts of the country," said William Sanchez, CONLAMIC's lawyer. "We cannot allow in the United States for cities and municipalities to establish immigration policies, which is clearly in the hands of the federal government. Cities and states are frustrated and trying to take things into their own hands, but they cannot."But supporters of the ordinance continue to say they are happy their town stepped up where the federal government has failed to act.
"I think it's about time they did something about it," said D'Agostino, the barber. "The Brazilians are gonna take it court to try and stop it, but as far as stopping the illegals, that's (the ordinance) got to be passed." Those opposed to it recognize their small town's ordinance could have major implications for the nationwide immigration debate.
"I will work to get rid of this ordinance for the sake of this town, and the sake of God's people, because it's an injustice taking place here in Riverside," business owner Ordosaid. "If the judges don't take care of this, this will happen all over the United States. We don't need a civil war in America."
Excerpts from Riverside, NJ's Illegal Immigration Relief Act
Under Section 2 - Findings and Declaration of Purpose
"That illegal immigration contributes to negative impacts on our streets and housing, negatively impacts our neighborhoods, subjects our classrooms to overcrowding and puts distend demands on our schools edging our schools to fiscal hardships, leads to higher crime rates, adds demands on all aspects of pubic safety jeopardizing the pubic safety of legal residents and diminishes our overall quality of life.Under Section 4 - Business Permits, Contracts or Grants
That the Township of Riverside is empowered and mandated by the people of the Township of Riverside to abate the nuisance of illegal immigration by aggressively prohibiting and punishing the acts, policies and people and businesses that aid and abet illegal immigrants."
"Any for-profit entity ... that aids or abets illegal immigration shall be denied approval of a business permit, the renewal of a business permit, township contracts or grants for a period not less than five years from its last offense.Under Section 5 - Renting to Illegal Aliens
"Aiding and abetting shall include ... the hiring or attempted hiring of illegal aliens, renting or leasing to illegal aliens, or funding or aiding in the establishment of a day laborer center that does not verify legal work status."
"Illegal aliens are prohibited from leasing or renting property.
"Any person or entity that violates this section shall be subject to a fine of not less than $1,000."
Reach Samantha Henry at 973-569-7172 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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