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Milford wants immigration help

After fatal crash, town is on edge

Nicolas Guaman, 34, faces charges including vehicular homicide while under the influence. Nicolas Guaman, 34, faces charges including vehicular homicide while under the influence.
By Jose Martinez
Globe Correspondent / September 16, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick has reached out to the family of a Milford man who was allegedly killed by an illegal immigrant driving drunk, as local police seek a meeting with federal authorities to tackle illegal immigration in the town.

Milford’s police chief contacted US Immigration and Customs Enforcement this week at the urging of selectmen, who told Ecuadoran officials at a packed public meeting Sept. 7 that they were drawing a line on illegal immigration.

“We need ICE to come to Milford, see what the situation is we are dealing with and work with our police, whether it’s setting up a sting operation or protracted, long-term regular enforcement,’’ said Selectman Brian Murray, who initiated the invitation. “We need their help to alleviate the situation.’’

To many Hispanic activists, however, these measures would unfairly target innocent people.

“We are very concerned about the overreaction of the Board of Selectmen,’’ said Franklin Soults, communications director for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition in Boston. “The Ecuadoran community in Milford is by and large law-abiding and contributes to the economy and diversity of the town.’’

Milford has been the scene of several protests calling for increased enforcement of immigration laws since the Aug. 20 death of Matthew Denice, 23, whose motorcycle was allegedly struck by an illegal immigrant from Ecuador. Nicolas Guaman, 34, faces charges including vehicular homicide while under the influence, failure to stop for police, and unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle.

Denice’s family and their supporters contend Guaman should have been deported previously when he was arrested on assault and other charges in 2008.

Milford’s police chief, Thomas O’Loughlin, said the case was dismissed when witnesses refused to cooperate, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Chuck Jackson said the agency was never notified of the arrest.

This week, Patrick reached out to Denice’s family. They had been critical of the governor’s opposition in June to the federal Secure Communities program, which cross-checks the fingerprints of everyone arrested against federal immigration databases. The program’s main goal is to find and deport serious criminals.

“Governor Patrick has reached out directly to Matthew Denice’s family to express his condolences,’’ said a statement from Alex Goldstein, the governor’s press secretary. “Out of respect for the family and their privacy, any further correspondence or meeting between the governor and the family will be private.’’

Patrick supports deporting convicted criminals; he doesn’t support Secure Communities but now feels the matter is out of the state’s hands. The Denice family could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Milford is a town of around 25,000 with a growing Hispanic population. According to the US Census, the number of Hispanic residents has nearly doubled in the last decade from 1,168 in 2000 (4.4 percent of the population) to 2,249 in 2010 (9 percent).

O’Loughlin said he figures the Ecuadoran community in town is largely undocumented and missed by the official head count. He estimates their number at about 2,000.

Milford selectmen are exploring legal ways to help residents and the town avoid hiring contractors who hire illegal immigrants, said the board’s chairman, Dino DeBartolomeis. “The employment aspect is related, too. We want to look at our legal options,’’ he said. “People hire illegal immigrants because it is cheap, and that is exploiting them, too.’’

But Hispanic activists say Milford officials are overreacting and making an already fearful segment of the population more frightened.

“It’s a painful situation to see develop,’’ said Diego Low, a coordinator with the Metrowest Worker Center in Framingham who has helped undocumented immigrants in Milford contest wage disputes.

Several Ecuadorans said in interviews with the Globe that they now feel unsafe and unwelcome in Milford. They declined to give their full names out of fear of deportation. One woman, who said she keeps her children indoors after school these days, said that since the crash Ecuadorans are being unfairly judged by the actions of one man.

“We ask a thousand apologies of the family,’’ she said. “We ask that the mother also understands that we are all not like the man who killed her son. We are all here for our children. It is not fair to blame us all for the actions of this [killer].’’

One night recently, someone in a passing car shouted a string of profanity at another immigrant, his wife and their 3-year-old son as they walked home.

O’Loughlin, the police chief, said he has heard only second-hand accounts of Ecuadorans and other Latino residents being harassed verbally on the street but said such encounters could escalate to crimes if threats or racial epithets are involved.

Selectman DeBartolomeis, whose family emigrated from Italy in the 1940s, said outrage over the Denice tragedy is no excuse for targeting innocent people.

“It is unfortunate,’’ DeBartolomeis said. “We are trying to fix one situation and people react like that. . . . It is terrible behavior on their part and two wrongs don’t make a right.’’

Globe correspondent Daniel Adams contributed to this report.