Immigration Stirs Up Bound Brook, Again

Immigration Stirs Up Bound Brook, Again

The New York Times
Published: August 8, 2008

FOUR years after the federal government found that Bound Brook (New Jersey) was unfairly targeting Hispanic residents for housing violations, the borough found itself once again embroiled in a debate about what municipalities can do to curb illegal immigration.

At a packed Borough Council meeting last month, the councils president, James Lefkowitz, proposed a far-reaching resolution that would require landlords to obtain proof of their tenants legal status, deny borough contracts to businesses that hire illegal immigrants and require police officers to check the status of people they arrest.

After a passionate debate that stretched on for hours, Mr. Lefkowitz could not persuade any of his colleagues to second his proposal, so it went nowhere. Mayor Carey Pilato, who opposed the resolution, loudly declared it dead as he and Mr. Lefkowitz argued. Mr. Lefkowitz vowed to place the measure as a referendum on Novembers ballot.

A person once made the suggestion that, with the human suffering thats involved, we should avoid this issue, Mr. Lefkowitz said. As a private citizen thats your right. As an elected official, I dont believe I have that right.

Others at the meeting said that his measure would unfairly target all Hispanics, and that the borough would end up having to spend money it could ill afford to defend against legal challenges that would surely follow.

Bound Brook is not the only municipality in New Jersey or elsewhere that has attempted to legislate limits on illegal immigration. In nearby Middletown, Mayor Gerard P. Scharfenberger said in an interview that he was watching Bound Brook because he, too, was considering introducing a measure to punish landlords who rent to illegal immigrants.

Bound Brook, a community of about 10,000 people in Somerset County, has tried to grapple with the issue of undocumented immigrants before. According to the 2000 census, 35 percent of its residents are Hispanic.

When Hurricane Floyd flooded Bound Brook in 1999, those left homeless included Hispanic immigrants, many of them undocumented, who had previously lived discreet lives in this working class borough and now were being helped by agencies like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross. Many long-time residents moved out of the flood-prone center of the borough and were replaced by illegal immigrants looking for affordable housing.

While there is no accurate count of illegal immigrants in the borough, a county report said that at least 200 undocumented people were living in Bound Brook at the time of the flooding.

In some cases, 8 to 15 people were living in a single-family unit, the report said. Some proponents of local legislation say that overcrowding puts residents at risk and requires taxpayers to shoulder a disproportionate share of costs for services like garbage pickup.

Others, like Carmen Salavarrieta, a community activist who aids Hispanics in Bound Brook facing abuse from employers and landlords, said the emphasis on overcrowding was an excuse to target all Hispanic residents. Ms. Salavarrieta and others complained to federal officials when borough housing inspectors began making nighttime inspections accompanied by police officers.

The United States Department of Justice investigated, and eventually sued the borough for unfair housing practices. Borough officials agreed to end the housing inspections and to pay damages to some of those who had claimed harassment.

Mayor Pilato said the settlement had cost the borough $600,000, about 10 percent of its annual tax revenue.

If we follow along this path over the next couple of months, not only can we expect to get a visit again from the D.O.J., I can see many other private entities that may come and decide to visit us, he said.

Mr. Lefkowitz said the settlement with the Justice Department established a sanctuary in Bound Brook for illegal immigrants by keeping inspectors from pursing violations. Those who disagree with him say that existing ordinances on overcrowding are sufficient and that new legislation will inevitably lead to discrimination against all Hispanics.

The feeling right now is very sour. People are afraid, said Ms. Salavarrieta. They feel like theyre not wanted here.

Mr. Lefkowitz said going forward could be divisive and costly.

Its an I dont really care what you think anymore thing, he said. Its personal for me.