Small-town crash sparks calls for illegal immigration crackdown in Mass.

Liz Goodwin

An apparent drunk-driving fatality in the small Massachusetts town of Milford has ignited a state-wide campaign to crack down on illegal immigration.

Last month, Ecuadoran Nicholas Guaman was charged with vehicular homicide for allegedly running down 23-year-old motorcyclist Matthew Denice in his truck while drunk. Guaman didn't have a driver's license.

The victim's family began advocating for Massachusetts to begin using the federal Secure Communities program. Denice's surviving family members maintain that tighter immigration enforcement could have prevented the fatal crash, since Guaman had a prior arrest and a Secure Communities review of his record would have resulted in his deportation.

A few thousand Ecuadorans, many of them undocumented, live in Milford, a town of 25,000 about 40 miles southwest of Boston. The immigrants work primarily in roofing and service jobs, according to radio station WBUR.
"If one of those factors had been different my son would still be here," Denice's mother told the local Fox station. "If we had the Secure Communities . . . he would have been deported."

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, was one of three governors who refused to allow the federal fingerprinting program in his state, saying that it would sow distrust between local police and immigrant communities. The Obama administration says the program will be mandatory in every county jail by 2013.

After Guaman was charged in the crash, three county sheriffs--including the sheriff in charge of Milford--traveled to Washington, D.C. to work with the federal government on an immigration enforcement deal that circumvents Patrick's authority. "It's not Secure Communities, but it's a perfect substitute," Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald told the Boston Herald. County jails will now be in contact with immigration officials so that inmates who are illegal immigrants can be deported.

That could have been the end of the story. But some state lawmakers want to take the issue further. A bipartisan group in both the House and the Senate is looking to rework a bill from 2010 that sought to step up immigration enforcement. The measure would crack down on people driving without licenses, set up a public telephone line to report people working illegally, and outlaw giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as minors. The state doesn't offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants right now, but the bill would seek to prevent it from ever happening.

Amendments to an unrelated gambling bill would compel casinos to check the immigration status of jackpot winners as well as casino employees.

Frank Soults of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition told The Lookout that the lawmakers are waging "a widespread attack on undocumented immigrants on every front they can imagine." He says the measures have nothing to do with the actual problem that struck in Milford: drunk driving.

Meanwhile, immigrants in Milford say their lives have drastically worsened since Guaman's alleged drunk driving put their entire community in the crosshairs.

A 26-year-old Ecuadoran woman who lives in Milford with her two young children told The Lookout that she has been insulted in front of her children by angry strangers since the crash happened last month. She's lived in the town for six years, and never before had people yell things at her like "Go home" or "We don't want you here."

On Monday, she got out of her job cleaning a hotel to find that all the windows of her car were smashed. She didn't want to call the police, because she says they're not in favor of the immigrants in the town and she didn't want to get in trouble. She is an illegal immigrant, but her children, aged 4 and 9, are U.S. citizens.

"My kids cried. They saw the broken car and they said, 'We should get out of here from Massachusetts,' " said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation. "'We should go to another place.' I said it's not easy, we don't have money. They said, 'But I'm very scared. When you're walking, you're getting insulted.' My daughter asked, 'How long is this going to happen?' They are traumatized. They're scared. They think they're coming to get us.

"We're all punished for one person," she added. "He's already in prison. They have him."

Another illegal immigrant living in Milford, a roofer named Juan, said he hasn't personally experienced any negative incidents since the crash but has stopped driving altogether because he believes police are stopping Hispanic-looking people to see if they are are driving without a license. "The problem is I can't do my daily things like wash my clothes, buy food, go to church," he said. His bosses take him to work, but otherwise he isn't able to get around. "The ambience is a little . . . you could say hostile."

Milford Police Chief Thomas O'Loughlin told The Lookout that his officers have not issued more citations than usual since Denice's death; he also said Milford cops are not racially profiling anyone. He says he's received no complaints about verbal or physical harassment against anyone in the Ecuadoran community. "People are upset, I think that people are angry. Reasonable emotions given the circumstances," he said. "But I've not had one complaint about someone who has been harassed because of their race."

Individual high-profile incidents like the crash in Milford have galvanized supporters for tougher laws against all illegal immigrants in other cases, as well.

When Arizona rancher Robert Krentz was murdered on his property near the Mexican border by a suspected smuggler in March 2010, supporters of the anti-illegal immigration law SB1070 used his senseless killing as a rallying cry to get the bill passed and signed. Authorities still haven't found Krentz's murderer, but footprints that led back to the border led them to suspect he or she was crossing into the country illegally.

In Prince William County, Maryland, a 23-year-old Bolivian illegal immigrant was charged with driving while intoxicated when he crashed into and killed a Benedictine nun last year. The man was in federal deportation proceedings, but had a valid driver's license. The state quickly changed its rules so that people with only temporary work authorization documents were no longer allowed to get driver's licenses. Immigration advocates told the Washington Post that the move blocked many legal immigrants from being able to drive legally.

Research from University of Colorado sociology professor Tim Wadsworth found that in U.S. cities with at least 50,000 people, an influx of immigrants was correlated to a decrease in crime between 1990 and 2000. But because the U.S. Census doesn't distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants, it's difficult for researchers to know the specific effect of illegal immigrants on crime. The Immigration Policy Center said in a report in 2007 that incarceration rates for young men of every ethnic group are lowest among immigrants, legal and illegal.

Correction: This article originally misstated the location of the Prince William County crash.