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Fighting back

With immigrants facing increased hostility, many townspeople say they have had enough

A doctor, a real estate broker, a sales manager for an oil company, and three local business owners gathered in Marlborough last week to fight anti-immigrant sentiment.

Two members of the group are in their late 20s, grew up in Marlborough, and are bilingual. All are immigrants, from either Brazil or Portugal.

The hostility they feel takes a number of forms in several communities: a revised town health code; a city's effort to get its own federal immigration office; anonymous hate fliers left in an apartment house lobby. These events have prompted defensive measures. Immigrants and their advocates are fighting back by getting organized.

In Marlborough, the City Council's attempt to open a local office for federal immigration authorities inspired the group of immigrant professionals to form an advocacy group over the summer.

In Framingham, a community meeting was organized last week in response to a batch of fliers carrying the threat of deportation, which were distributed around an apartment complex.

In Milford, some residents are trying to repeal a measure on overcrowded apartments that is widely seen as targeting immigrants.

"We are here permanently and we have as much love for this city as others," said Ilton Lisboa, who spearheaded the formation of the new Marlborough group.

The provocations in Marlborough garnered news media attention over the summer. The bid to open a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office was well covered before it recently failed. In August, the Marlborough School Committee imposed newly rigid restrictions on registering children for school, asking for three forms of documents, including some that would be difficult for an illegal immigrant to produce, to meet residency requirements.

Although school officials say the measure was not meant to target illegal immigrants, Lisboa's group says it nonetheless sent out a chilling message.

Nilton Lisboa, 28, Ilton Lisboa's son and vice president of operations at Weichert Realtors-Ernie Hood Associates, said the group wants to participate in the community dialogue to ensure the immigrant viewpoint is represented.

"The city has to make a decision," Nilton Lisboa said. "Any ordinance [it enacts] will also affect the community. We would like to take part."

As a first step, the group will be offering free English as a Second Language classes to area immigrants next month, Nilton Lisboa said. He said the group would like eventually to meet with city officials and expand beyond Marlborough.

The immigrant community in Framingham has been ahead of the curve when it comes to organizing, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, but Milford and Marlborough seem to be just now developing groups of homegrown advocates.

"It's people organizing themselves, not professionals organizing people," said Noorani. "As local elected officials overreach and try to divide and conquer towns and cities, regular people are saying, 'This isn't who we are.' "

For some, advocacy means bringing more public notice to the important distinction between illegal and legal immigrants. Critics usually emphasize that they see only illegal immigrants as a problem - in terms of crime, health threats, increased healthcare costs, and employment. But legal immigrants and their advocates say the atmosphere of hostility can become so poisonous, it even seeps into the lives of those who have green cards or new American passports.

Although there are no recent statistics on the growth in each community of the number of legal immigrants - and certainly, even less information regarding illegal immigrants - school numbers give a snapshot. Marlborough, Milford, and Framingham each have a larger percentage than the state average of students whose first language is not English. Statewide, 14.9 percent of students speak a first language other than English, according to 2006-2007 data from the state Department of Education. In Marlborough, that figure is 23.9 percent; in Milford, 16.5 percent; and in Framingham, 33.6 percent.

Some Framingham residents have also taken note of a perceptible spike in anti-immigrant sentiment in their community.

When a proposal by the Great Brook Valley Health Center to build a new clinic for low-income people was rejected by town officials in March 2006, some immigrants felt targeted.

On Aug. 26, a local teenager stumbled upon about 50 fliers strewn on the floor of his apartment complex. In black letters, a message was written in a crude mix of Portuguese and Spanish: Immigration is watching you.

Local authorities looked into the incident and determined that it was probably nothing more than a bad joke.

The Framingham group Brazilian American Association, or BRAMAS, addressed the flier incident at a meeting Thursday night. The meeting was part of an ambitious one-year plan to involve local churches in helping to advise immigrants on issues such as healthcare, immigration law, and education.

In a small room, about 20 local community activists, residents, and religious leaders gathered to hear presentations by health professionals about ways for immigrants to access the healthcare system. Next month's meeting will be about immigration.

"We want to strengthen the Brazilian community internally," said Frank Kavanagh, the group's president. "We want to encourage people to make them feel like they're part of the decision-making."

Milford landlord Richard Morrison helped collect signatures on a petition to force Town Meeting next month to revisit a bylaw it passed in October 2005, requiring inspections of rental units to ensure that they are not overcrowded.

To Morrison, the bylaw is a personal affront to his privacy. But more than that, he said, it's one example in a series of attempts by Milford leaders to target immigrants.

The October 2005 Town Meeting also voted to prohibit check-cashing facilities located outside banks and to ban "trash picking."

"I think that our federal government has let us down in terms of effectively handling illegal immigration," said Morrison. "And I think that has resulted in more than one community dealing with the issue in a way that harms its citizens."

Apartment overcrowding is common in several western suburbs, particularly among newly arrived immigrants seeking low-cost housing. Surrounding neighbors generally complain about resulting noise, excessive trash, and yards that resemble parking lots.

Milford resident Marie J. Parente, a former state representative of 26 years, defended the overcrowding bylaw as a safety issue, saying, for example, that overused electrical outlets represent a fire hazard. But overcrowding is just one of several problems that arise in the town from illegal immigration, she said. The trash-rummaging bylaw was necessary because illegal immigrants were picking through garbage for identities they might be able to steal, said Parente. And another concern that no one has figured out how to address, she said, is illegal immigrants driving without licenses and without enough knowledge of the rules of the road.

"The one thing that makes everybody equal whether you are legal or illegal . . . is the rule of law," said Parente. "When anyone, including the illegals, exempts themselves from these rules, you have chaos, and that's what's happening here."

Parente's reaction is echoed around the country, in communities where large immigrant populations have sprung up. But the backlash from immigrants and their advocates, the kind of organizing now beginning to be seen in western suburbs with significant immigrant populations, appears to be spreading as well.

"These are regular people who are telling town leadership that enough is enough - stop scapegoating immigrants and taking it out on everybody along the way," said Noorani.

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or lkocian@globe.com.

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