NORWALK, Conn. — There are things that undocumented immigrants should be doing, that they haven’t been doing, actions “that will help them if there are favorable laws in the future and things that might help them if they are ever put into deportation proceedings,” Attorney Philip Berns said.
That includes “the importance of knowing their 4th and 5th amendment rights and how to defend themselves if they are being approached by immigration officers, Berns said, in explaining what he said to a crowd of people attending a recent forum on immigration rights at the South Norwalk Community Center.
Immigrants come here because, “We have the pull because we have the strong economy and we have jobs that need to be filled but we are also complicit in creating the push and the conditions back in their home country that make them not have opportunities,” said Berns, a Stamford attorney, in an interview with NancyOnNorwalk after the meeting. “I am not saying we created all of it but we assisted in part of those conditions.”
Berns spoke fluent Spanish on Feb. 27 to a full house in the community center, although he is not Hispanic.
“I have always had a social justice streak,” explained Berns, explaining that his mother was an immigrant who spoke French. “People treated her like she was a moron. She was very intelligent and spoke better English than a lot of Americans… I grew up seeing what being an immigrant is like.”
He joined the Peace Corps and went to South America, he said, adding, “I speak Haitian Creole better than I speak Spanish.”
The majority of the standing room only crowd at the center weren’t necessarily undocumented immigrants, he said.
“I have heard from people that a lot of undocumented immigrants are extremely fearful to go to public meetings so it might be very well that a lot of people were documented or even citizens, going there to get the information and share with friends, undocumented immigrants, etc.”
Every hand went up when he asked how many people present knew undocumented immigrants who are extremely fearful now, he said.
People are panicking with Donald Trump as president, Berns said; while normally 40 percent of his practice deals with immigration issues, now, “80 percent of my time is fielding immigration questions,” in a “very limited immigration practice,” doing, work permits green cards, citizenship, and immigrating people to reunite them with family here, he said.
“I don’t do deportations and I don’t do business immigration,” he said.
His clients are here, working hard and paying taxes, with probably a third to half of them paid in cash, he said.
“My clients who are getting paid cash would be more than happy to trade 10, 15, 20 percent of their income, which is what their tax rate probably would be given their income levels, to be able to legalize their situation here,” Berns said.
Immigrants who came here before 1994 could get Social Security numbers, but now, some immigrants pay into the Social Security system with no hope of getting benefits because their illegal employers use Tax Identification numbers to make the payments, he said.
“Even the ones who are paying cash are paying property taxes directly or indirectly,” Berns said. “If they have a car, they are paying property taxes on that. If they are renting someplace, that landlord would have no money to pay property taxes if he didn’t have these tenants. They are paying sales taxes, obviously, and a higher percentage of their income goes to sales taxes than most people because their income is going to be a little bit lower because they can’t get the higher paying jobs because they are not legal.”
“A lot of these myths are just completely wrong. I think a lot of people are getting news from sources that have an agenda rather than seeking balance and presenting verifiable facts, or facts that come from studies rather than opinion,” Berns said.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) caused more undocumented immigration because Mexicans with profitable little farms were put out of business by a flood of cheap subsidized American corn, he said. They loved their country, didn’t want to be rich and they didn’t want to come here because they knew life could be tough, but sought help from relatives here because they didn’t have a choice, he said.
Decades of American foreign policy determining who would have power in many countries, such as the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup Guatemala, which prevented land reform, has “perpetrated a lot of what happens in Central America, where the rich are even richer, in comparison, relatively, than here, and poor even poorer than here, although we are getting there,” Berns said.
Undocumented immigrants are not criminals, he said.
“It is not a crime to be here without permission, it’s a civil violation of the law,” Berns said. “A lot of people don’t distinguish between the two. It is not a crime to work here without permission. It’s a civil violation. It is not a crime to get a tax identification number and pay taxes with a tax ID. Of course, they are not eligible to get Social Security cards and Social Security numbers. It is a crime to cross the border; it’s one of the lowest level misdemeanors that is under federal law. It’s probably the federal equivalent of breach of peace, under state law.”
Some of the people who are “ridiculously” screaming about undocumented immigrants being criminals are probably guilty of getting drunk while in college and behaving badly in public, he said.
But, “Trump is doing a lot of screaming and yelling about what he is doing but in fact he has only deported like 700 or 800 people and Obama was deporting more than 1,000 people a day six or seven years ago,” Berns said. “Immigrants, as a result of Trump’s shouting and screaming, are scared to death when really as of now there is no reason for them to be scared to death.”
Mayor Harry Rilling and Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik sought, at the Feb. 27 forum, to lessen the fear here.
“You are welcome here in Norwalk. Norwalk has great diversity and lots of times you may hear things, that people are coming after you. That is not going to happen here in Norwalk,” Rilling said.
“Here in Norwalk, the police department does not, does not, enforce immigration laws,” Kulhawik said.
Norwalk Police would assist the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with a criminal investigation but not immigration enforcement, and the operations are completely separate, Kulhawik said, explaining that ICE cannot use Norwalk’s jail.
Kulhawik said he couldn’t imagine ICE coming to Norwalk to pick up immigrants.
Connecticut has strict rules in governing the kind of activities that you might hear about elsewhere, Rilling said, explaining that the Trump Administrations’ talk of cracking down on sanctuary cities is a threat that may hit roadblocks.
“We are not sure that the city or the state is going to be losing any funds right now,” Rilling said. “… A lot of people are going to challenge that, that it’s unconstitutional for them to do that. So, I am not worried about that right now, I am more worried about making sure that people in this room know that they are safe here in Norwalk and we welcome you here.”
On Sunday, Rilling said in an email, “Certain information released by Federal Authorities has generated concerns and must be vetted, including the potential loss of federal funds. We need to proceed in a manner that protects our entire community. Until a final decision is agreed upon, we will continue to operate under current state statute.”
Cracking down on immigration isn’t new, Berns said to NoN, explaining that he can’t help nine of 10 people, because, “The laws have been terribly stacked against immigrants since the 1996 reforms. At that time, Congress just took a boxful of wrenches and threw it into the machinery. A whole lot of things became impossible.”
“Trump is casting a light on all these immigrants as criminals and rapists and all the rest of it has really brought out the worst in a certain percentage of the American population who feel much more free in expressing their racist attitudes to immigrants,” Berns said. “Immigrants are finding they are being treated badly by many more people in the community… It’s pretty sad that the country is going backward on things we have made progress on.”
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