Somerville is far from Arizona, but its high immigrant population keeps it close to the immigration debate. In the wake of the passage of the Arizona immigration bill, the city's immigrants and activists are reacting with fear, anger and uncertainty, and yet some are questioning whether the bill have much effect on Somerville.
The Arizona bill was signed into law on April 23, and has made national news for being the boldest piece of legislation regarding immigration the country has seen. The bill mandates that police stop anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant to the U.S., and requires all immigrants to carry documentation on their persons.
Already, Somerville has seen some public outcry. Many residents participated in the International Workers' Day March on May 1 in support of immigrants. Centro Presente, an organization based out of Somerville that works for immigrants' rights statewide, has begun organizing forums and protests in response to the law's passage and in anticipation of its effects on the immigrant community in the greater Boston area.
"We are getting calls about what are the ramifications of this law," says Gabriel Camacho, President of the Board of Centro Presente. He called the law "much more than symbolic" and echoed the sentiments of many nationwide, saying, "It is going to legalize racial profiling."
Centro Presente will be demonstrating at the State House Thursday, May 13, along with the New Sanctuary Movement of Greater Boston and the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign. They will host a community forum Saturday, May 15 at 4:00.
Members of other local advocacy groups expressed similar feelings about the effects of the law on the local community, indicating that the public rhetoric is likely to escalate fear and tension in a city like Somerville with such a dense immigrant population. Tito Meza, a community organizer with the Somerville Community Corporation and immigrant from Honduras, said this kind of thing has "an effect on the mind of the community."
Warren Goldstein-Gelb, Executive Director of the Welcome Project, an organization based in the Mystic Public Housing Development that works to fight racism and empower local immigrants and refugees, said this kind of legislation "strikes fear into anyone, whether they're documented or undocumented. It's sort of profiling and attacking the entire community."
María Landaverdes, Youth Programs Coordinator at the Welcome Project and herself an immigrant, says she has noticed a change recently in how she feels in Somerville: "I felt free before, but now, you know, I really don't know. And I have documents, and I speak English."
The idea that immigrants, documented and undocumented, will be more nervous to access resources in their community, is prevalent. One woman, an immigrant from El Salvador living in the Mystic Public Housing Development, said she and her friends and family will feel much more afraid to call the police or go to the hospital. Speaking anonymously, she said, "Now we can't go out. When something happens, who do we call to help us?" She expressed that there are a lot of rumors circulating among immigrants about what may happen in this area.
Emma Ramos, another immigrant from El Salvador, expressed fear regarding the possibility of imminent deportation and being separated from her children, only some of whom are documented. She also articulated a sense of under appreciation for the economic contributions of immigrants. If more and more immigrants are deported, she asked, "How will this nation be left?" Ramos said that for her, Somerville feels safe for now, but that she is praying nothing similar happens here.
Despite the fear and uncertainty, though, there is a great deal of faith in Somerville's representatives and population. Ramos, Landaverdes and others expressed appreciation for how supportive people in Somerville are of immigrants, including Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone.
Somerville has a history of supporting its immigrants, having passed resolutions in the past declaring that all are welcome to access the community's resources. Danny LeBlanc, CEO of the Somerville Community Corporation, said a resolution like the one passed by the city of Boston on Wednesday cutting ties with Arizona businesses "might make sense." He added, "we may decide it's important to test that."
Police officials downplayed the local effects of the Arizona law. "I don't believe that this bill in Arizona will have any impact on our officers or the way we do business. The Police Department and the city have invested a great deal of time and effort to work with our diverse community," said Deputy Chief Paul Upton.
When asked what message they would want to send to their representatives and their community, Ramos and her friend said, "Give us the chance to get papers. Instead of losing, they win and we win."