Like the Tobin Bridge that towers above Chelsea’s sprawling patchwork of dingy, red brick factories, vacant lots sprinkled with patches of dead grass and thin row houses roughly encroaching on their neighbors, the issue of illegal immigration and Chelsea’s self-styled status as a “Sanctuary City” divides the community.
In addition to the city’s 35,000 citizens — 36 percent of whom were born outside the United States according to the 2000 U.S. Census — a substantial population of undocumented immigrants also lives in Chelsea.
In June, Chelsea’s City Council passed a resolution distinguishing the town as a Sanctuary City and stating it would provide a safe haven for undocumented immigrants. Though the decree asserted that “every Chelsea resident has the right to live, work and play without fear” and that “immigration raids that spread fear and break-up families are not warranted or wanted in Chelsea,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stormed the Market Basket grocery store in mid-August — just two months after the resolution passed — and escorted 27 undocumented Brazilian workers away in handcuffs.
A similar investigation in a Chelsea factory less than three weeks later left immigration activists questioning whether the resolution had any merit in the face of federal pressure and struck a psychological blow to immigrants, documented and not, who began to regard their surroundings with even more suspicion.
A SIGN OF SOLIDARITY
City Councilor Roseann Bongiovanni, who drafted the Chelsea resolution with fellow councilor Roy Avellaneda, said the federal raid of a factory in nearby New Bedford last March intensified the city’s desire to pass a sanctuary city resolution similar to a measure Cambridge adopted in 1985.
Unlike Cambridge, which is home to two of the world’s premier universities and has a median family income close to $60,000, Chelsea is one of Massachusetts’ poorest cities with a median family income equal to little more than half of Cambridge’s, and also hosts one of the state’s highest percentages of immigrants. Bongiovanni said the resolution aims to protect the poor, immigrant-rich population from intimidation by xenophobic zealots and prevent paranoia.
“With anti-immigration touted throughout the whole country . . . we always welcomed diversity,” Bongiovanni said. “We needed to pass the resolution to support all the folks in our area.”
Though the resolution received overwhelming support from Chelsea’s Hispanic and Brazilian populations, Bongiovanni said the city has yet to pass formal laws and policy to protect immigrants and lend credence to the resolution.
“Police won’t be stopping people and asking for ID or papers,” she said. “The resolution is already implemented but a more formalized implementation is being pushed by Latino members, knowing that the city council supported them.
“The city resolution is the opinion of the City Council, not law,” she continued. “If the federal government said ‘We’re doing a roundup of residents in Chelsea,’ does our police department have to participate? According to the resolution, we would have to.”
In addition to its large number of Spanish-speakers, Chelsea has various Asian populations and a small Somali population that have also voiced their appreciation for the welcoming message, Bongiovanni said.
UPHEAVAL AND UNCERTAINTY
The resolution’s approval rating varies among area residents, however. Last fall, city councilmen from neighboring Everett petitioned the government to funnel federal Homeland Security funding from Chelsea and into their own city.
Everett Common Councilor James Keane, who spearheaded the initiative to revoke the federal funding, said his town’s citizens pay an undue price, including higher taxes and increased criminal activity, because of their neighbor’s undocumented immigrant population, The Boston Globe reported in November.
Other residents also say undocumented immigrants exacerbate existing ills.
“We have our own problems in Chelsea without [undocumented immigrants] here,” said Chelsea resident Emma Stewart, 65. “Come the right way or don’t come at all.”
Stewart, who has lived in Chelsea for more than 15 years and frequents Market Basket, the site of the first August raid, said undocumented immigrants cast the entire immigrant population in a negative light.
“I have nothing bad to say about immigrants,” she said. “I don’t think they are a threat, but some are bad [and] into drugs and crime.”
Fellow Chelsea native and Market Basket shopper John Carroll, 46, said he supports cooperation among local police in the federal government’s immigration investigations, but said he would be unsure how to proceed if he discovered one of his neighbors living in the United States illegally.
“My neighbors teach me some Spanish words and cook me some Spanish food,” Carroll said. “If I found out they were illegal, I’m not sure I would report them. [I’d probably] keep it a secret.”
Carroll suggested holding employers accountable for hiring undocumented immigrants rather than engaging in large-scale raids.
Boston resident Isabel Maez, a native of the Dominican Republic, said that while undocumented immigrants should receive some punishment for flouting naturalization laws, no immigrants should have to look over their shoulder whenever they leave their homes.
“If you’re illegal you’re breaking the law,” Maez, 38, said. “But if they didn’t commit any crime, they should be given a chance [to become citizens].
“[Sanctuary cities] are a good idea, because cities [have certain obligations] to the people,” she said. “[Raids] make people paranoid. Even if they’re not illegal, if they aren’t carrying their paperwork, people might think they’re illegal. I’m not white-looking, they might think I am [an undocumented immigrant].”
Following 20 years of direct involvement in and supervision of Chelsea’s public schools, Boston University’s School of Education will end its formal partnership with the school system in June. Based on his uniquely close ties to Chelsea as SED dean ad interim and former Chelsea Urban Team member, Charles Glenn said though the sanctuary city designation sends a friendly message to undocumented residents, the resolution has little significance.
“It’s not meaningful,” he said. “I think it makes [the city of Chelsea] feel good about themselves.”
Because the Supreme Court guarantees that all children — even undocumented immigrants — have the right to an education, the Chelsea education system only requires a child’s proof of residency and not citizenship. However, he said the failure to attain legal status results in various negative consequences, even if the immigrant is not detained or deported.
“[Undocumented immigrants] can be exploited because they don’t dare to make use of their rights,” he said. “They don’t sue an employer who withholds pay or landlord that doesn’t install smoke detectors.”
FREEZING OUT ICE AGENTS
Boston May Day Coalition coordinator Sergio Reyes said the late-August raid in Chelsea, which coincided with similar searches in East Boston, Somerville and Everett, was billed as a sting operation to capture members of Mara Salvatrucha, a notorious Salvadoran gang. However, Reyes, whose organization hosts a large immigrants’ rights demonstration each May 1, said that if the raids were designed to discover dangerous criminals, then ICE should have taken a backseat to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“How come they arrested only immigrants?” Reyes said. “Because if this is a federal raid why is it not conducted by the FBI but by ICE?”
Though illegal residency and related immigration regulations are administrative laws, ICE officers treat them as criminal offenses and conduct militant raids, which facilitate the arrests of undocumented workers under the guise of criminal activity, Reyes said.
“These people are guilty by association and not charged with anything specific,” he said. “Nobody knows what happened to these people. It’s like making them disappear.”
Despite a clause warning that the city does not welcome raids unrelated to public safety, the resolution may have prompted the raids or sped up pre-planned ICE investigations, Bongiovanni said.
“We don’t know if that caught the attention of ICE,” she said. “Did it have a clear correlation? We’re not sure…. If we knew that this was going to happen, we wouldn’t have passed it. I would have never ever thought about writing it.”
Chelsea police cooperated with the investigation after ICE told them the agency was investigating specific criminal activity, she said.
“[The police] said ‘Of course we’ll support the effort. We don’t want gangs,'” she said. “For the most part, it was a legitimate reason, but having them come in like that shakes up the whole community.”
Immigrants in Chelsea who had considered the area safe began to feel threatened and even “terrorized” at the Market Basket supermarket, which led to a 30 percent decrease in business and an air of paranoia, Bongiovanni said.
“The supermarket [was] packed all the time, but afterward, there was hardly anyone in there,” she said. “Just the fear of ICE being in the city resonated in the community. People were wondering, ‘Is it Chelsea police doing this?’ Rumors were spread [that scared Chelsea residents].”
DEPORTATION HITTING HOME
When her boyfriend was deported to Honduras after the Chelsea factory where he worked was raided two years ago, Chelsea student Jennifer Miranda, 23, was left with no means of support for her and her infant daughter and nowhere to turn but homeless shelters.
“Now my daughter has no father,” said Miranda, who now lives in a Mattapan shelter. “He’s serving 20 years in a Texas prison because he tried to come back twice [after being deported]. Some immigrants get 20 to 30 years [in prison], but rapists, child molesters get free after a few years.
“Fifteen years from now my daughter won’t know her father, but rapists and murderers will [be with their families],” she said. “Instead of jails for bad people, people who do nothing go to jail for 20 years and take up government money.”
She said cities with large immigrant populations like Chelsea must better protect their conscientious, foreign inhabitants.
“Chelsea would be gone [if pressure on immigrants increased],” she said. “There would be a dozen people here. People who are actually working, [who] go to work, go home, spend time with their families, pay their bills, these are the people we should protect.”