Immigrants Flee Raid Meant To Help Them

by Tess Wheelwright | June 8, 2006 9:02 AM | | Comments (5)

An effort to bust a landlord for taking advantage of immigrant tenants turned ruinous Wednesday. Cops blew whistles while undocumented Mexican immigrants fled out the back door into the rain with whatever they could carry, wanting nothing to do with advocates who pleaded with them to wait.

The scene unfolded Wednesday morning in a house on Elm Street where immigrant workers have been living in crowded apartments, one of which was a dank, low, unfinished space with a wire-strung ceiling, chunks of exposed wall, and heating appliances marked flammable interspersed with the few pieces of worn furniture.

What began as a housing inspection to protect the tenants turned into a sweep of illegal immigrants once a police officer arrived on the scene. No arrests were made, but the officer’s “care to cross [his] ts and dot [his] is” seemed to run against city leaders’ promises of working with immigrants rather than trying to help the feds track down undocumented workers.

“Why are we here?” asked officer Jon Haddad (pictured below at left), surprised to be met at the door by a hallway-full of city inspectors, immigrant rights advocates, and documentarians.

“I called [the police] because these tenants want to make a complaint of trespassing. Their landlady came in uninvited and removed the refrigerator,” explained Rafael Ramos, inspector with the city’s Livable City Initiative (LCI).

“Did you see her do it?”

A Mexican tenant, pseudonym Alfredo, did. He stepped forward to explain through translation the landlord’s steps —blocked electricity, shouted insults, a sudden seven-day deadline — over the past week to drive them out.

“When she came and took the fridge, why didn’t you call the police?”

“They were scared,” explained John Jairo Lugo (pictured at right, with Haddad) of the immigrant rights group Unidad Latina en Acción.

“She was apparently out on the sidewalk shouting, threatening to call Immigration,” added Ramos.

Haddad stopped, lifting calculating eyes to the rolling camera of a visual anthropology student from the University of London. She was there with permission from Lugo to film for a documentary on the struggles of Connecticut’s undocumented immigrants.

“Are you telling me they don’t have documents?” Haddad asked.

Lugo and Ramos exchanged glances.

“I don’t know,” said Lugo.

Ramos attempted to steer focus back to the landlord’s violations. Haddad wouldn’t be steered.

“Someone just said they’re illegal aliens: Now I have to do something. Are they legal?”


They’re not. Wednesday morning’s episode, reflective of how American cities have stumbled dealing with their growing immigrant populations, drove home just how insecure that makes them.

Officer Haddad soon returned from the landlord’s house a few doors up with two messages. First, you’re right: She can’t scoff landlord-tenant code like this, no matter what. The eviction she’s demanding has to be carried out the legal way — over months and via sheriff’s visit and an official notice to quit. Meanwhile she can’t be bothering you anymore.

Second, I’ve filed this police report to Immigration: If I were you, I’d be gone by morning.

“Let them know I’ve had to file to immigration. They could find themselves in Mexico tomorrow. Word to the wise.”

With reluctance, Lugo translated Haddad’s message to the gathered group of Dwight neighborhood tenants whose relations with their landlord had grown increasingly sour over the past few months. She charged obscene amounts for electricity and gas without presenting them the bill, they said, and when they finally refused to pay, she’d cut the electricity, removed their fridge without warning or permission to enter, and shouted threats of calling federal authorities on them if they weren’t gone a week from June 1.

A group of their friends formerly living upstairs were driven out by similar problems back in April. Now Lugo’s months of attempted mediation with their landlord (herself an immigrant, from Jamaica) had come to the same for the first-floor group: fear, and plans for quick flight.

When Haddad left, the talk turned to where the group could head that night, just in case. A likely alternative apartment was expected to be ready for them Friday

“If I were you, I’d leave. And if I stayed, I wouldn’t open the door for anybody,” said Lugo

Meanwhile, he seemed still shaken by Haddad’s demands for immigration papers all around. Lugo had understood at least an informal agreement with police, after a series of community meetings last year, that immigration questions wouldn’t be asked when safety complaints were lodged. Lugo remembered a message of “We’re here to protect everybody” from the police officials — important toward fixing the under-reporting of violent crimes against undocumented immigrants afraid to call attention to themselves. “Robberies, rapes, and the victims don’t call!” said Lugo.

He offered the newly displaced first-floor tenants two interim spots at his own apartment. Fellow Unidad Latina activists Raúl Rivera and Fátima Rojas offered the other six needed.

The Elm Street landlord, an immigrant herself, is named Carol K. Combie (pictured after a fretful front-porch exchange with Ramos). She described herself to Officer Haddad as a victim in the situation, new to landlording and taken advantage of. (Combie didn’t speak to a reporter Wednesday. She did in an earlier interview, in which she said she wanted to help her tenants.)

“I’m taking a huge hit,” Haddad reported that Combie told him Wednesday, claiming her tenants failed to pay rent. “The house is up for foreclosure today. They owe me twelve grand.”

“They haven’t been here long enough to owe her twelve grand,” said Rafael Ramos.

“We tried to mediate with her. We had to take action,” said Lugo, referring to his decision to call in the city’s Liveable City Initiative to take record of the landlord’s violations and issue official orders against her. Lugo had hoped the city intervention would win the tenants compensation for their relocation to another Dwight apartment, and empower them to see that papers or no papers, they had basic rights in this country, too.

“Usually, we prevail,” said Ramos, referring to a new LCI inspections program designed to ensure baseline decency of all New Haven housing. In other cases, code-violating landlords have been successfully taken to task, made to pay hotel bills until up-to-par alternative housing is found for their mistreated tenants, he said. After surveying the Elm Street scene, Ramos had every reason to expect Wednesday’s inspection would end in the same.

The tenants’ reports on their landlord’s rash eviction threats and unlicensed entry already had LCI’s Scott Sheeley pretty convinced that she stood in violation. “Regardless of what’s going on here, she has no right to get them out like that. There’s an eviction process.” But what really got the inspectors was a peek for themselves into the house’s basement.

Ramos said he’d been waiting months since seeing pictures on the Internet of the dangerous basement to locate and condemn it. Once in, it took him about two minutes to rule it unfit for occupancy. “I can’t believe they’re really living here,” Ramos exclaimed, fixing immediately on the dangers of the dank, unfinished space, its low ceiling and exposed pipes both strung with hanging wire. Checking for fire hazard, he found them warm to the touch: “This becomes like a fuse!” (pictured).

Lugo reminded of the months-long effort to reverse these abuses through negotiations with the landlord. “There is no negotiation!” said Ramos, adding carbon monoxide poisoning to the list of risks, turning around to see a crawl-space housing heating tanks a few feet from one cramped sleeping quarters (like those pictured below, being inspected). In a minute he was on the phone to headquarters: “I’m in a situation. It’s an illegal basement. No second egress, no smoke detectors: The landlady’s taking total advantage.”

That was the unanimous ruling among Unidad Latina and LCI contingents Wednesday. “These are human rights violations. She’s committing abuse,” said Lugo. LCI Inspector Scott Sheeley was quickly on the same track. “It’s illegal. She’s going to get an order letter from us. At this point, we’re going to have them removed, and the basement apartment needs to be taken out.”

Tenants Panic

The ones who needed more convincing were the basement tenants themselves. As Ramos and Sheeley were inspecting, murmurings among that stricken-looking group of seven were pessimistic: “This is all going to come out badly…”

“No one’s going to call any agency,” assured Ramos. But as they hurried out of the basement and the line of the still-rolling camera, the tenants looked anything but confident. To Fátima Rojas (pictured, trying to reassure tenants), two from the group contrasted their relationship with the landlord with their upstairs first-floor neighbors’. With those living in the basement, she was a “good person.” Of course they weren’t happy with the arrangement, but “We earn very little. A day like today, when it’s raining, we don’t work.” They used to live, they said, on a dangerous part of Chapel Street where they would be “attacked” walking at night, where there was “much less security than here.” This landlord helped them.

“This isn’t a help!” said Rojas, gesturing toward the dark entrance below. “We’re not rats. We’re talking about peoples’ lives.” She told of fires killing families in similar situations. “That’s why housing codes exist.” She said of course the landlord was friendly with them: She was benefiting from exploiting them. And she knew it. “It’s very different here than in Mexico. Here, landlords have obligations. She has to comply with the codes, with the rules. It doesn’t matter whether you have status.”

“She’s committing abuse, isn’t she?” probed Lugo.

“Yes,” one of the basement tenants allowed. But “she charges very little.”

“I need to cool them out. We’re not the Gestapo,” said Ramos, at seeing the concern on the faces surrounding Rojas. “In a way I don’t blame them. It’s easy for her to explain that to them” — that as indocumentados they still have rights — “but they see she’s got her job, her driver’s license… If I’m them, I could be on my way in a wagon tomorrow.”

The new apartment “is going to cost a little more than five hundred a month,” he told the group, “but it’s going to be much safer.” Safe and secret also, he promised, would be the two hotel rooms Sheeley had booked them until the new place was found.

The still-wary tenants (pictured holding Unidad Latina literature as Ramos addressed the group) said nothing, except to refuse the rooms, mentioning someone’s boss they could stay with a few days.

An hour later, an ambassador for the group would return for a low-voiced conference with Rojas on the porch: Would the landlord know where the new apartment was? What if she called Immigration to punish them? Would she know how to find them at the hotel?” There was no boss host after all.

For now, as Ramos and the others went with misplaced hope to greet the squad car and Officer Haddad at the front door, the basement tenants disappeared in a few bundle-laden trips, through the back door and out into the rain.

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Posted by: Jon Haddad | June 9, 2006 8:21 PM

Well, there goes my shot at being cop of the week !

Posted by: ICE ICE baby | June 14, 2006 2:08 PM

here legally = immigrant
not here legally = illegal alien

Posted by: me | July 5, 2006 2:50 AM

Once word gets back to Mexico about how Connecticut doesn't enforce immigration laws we should have a state full of illegal aliens. Thanks. DeStefano for Governor? I think not, I just changed my mind.

Posted by: Lorca | July 6, 2006 1:57 AM

Hi! Im an inmigrant I live in New Haven, for the last 4 years... i was born in Cuba, but please tell me why i just become ligal so easy, and how about all my Brother and Compañeros from America. Becouse letme tell you some thing America is a Continent no just a part of a land, so letme tell you another thing, all my brothers from America Latina and even from the caribe, we are arriving here more and more for all those rules from the Word Bank, from NAFTA, FROM CAFTA, so please dont be so selfish or greedy. Be Human and read more to open your mind. I just let me tell you just last thing... Do you know a little of American History...

Chistopher Columbus couldn't discover America: He didn't have a visa or even a passport.
Pedro Alvares Cabral could't get of the boat in Brazil: he might heve been carrying smallpox, measles, the flu, or other foreign plagues.
Hernan Cortez and Francisco Pizarro could never have begun the conquest of Mexico and Peru: They didn't have working papers.
Pedro de Alvarado was turned awat from Guatemala, and Pedro de Valdivia couldn't enter Chile: they couldn't prove they had no plice record.
THE MAYFLOWERS PILGRIMS were sent back to sea from the coast of Massachusetts: the immigration quotas were full.

Posted by: MSK | July 7, 2006 10:53 AM

I think the point of this story was to expose the abuses these people were forced to endure due to their fear and status as illegal immigrants. Can we just for once stop beating our chests about the illegal aliens in Connecticut and focus on the issue of HUMAN RIGHTS!!??? Have we become so callus that the suffering of fellow human beings is less concerning to us than their immigration status?

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