ELSMERE—Families used to linger by the tomatillos and plantains in the three aisles of Ruby Lopez’s Bernal Produce market in Elsmere. Now lone shoppers furtively check off lists and hurry back to cars.
At the attached Mariscos Los Del Fines restaurant, tables used to fill with young men hungry for seafood lunches and a glimpse of Lopez’s pretty waitresses. But the Kirkwood Highway restaurant has been empty for more than a month.
Those men stopped coming several weeks ago. They fear the way they look, or the bright blue building with illuminated Spanish words outside, could make them stand out in the town of 5,800.
And since March, no one has wanted to stand out.
That’s when word got out that an Elsmere councilman proposed an ordinance to fine undocumented residents $100 if they are stopped by the police. Their landlords and employers could face fines of $1,000.
“This is a racial profiling ordinance if I’ve ever seen one,” said Maria Matos, executive director of the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington. She said she doesn’t think the council has done enough research on the proposal’s legality.
The ordinance won’t be introduced until May’s City Council meeting. But already residents are living in fear, worried—whether they are legal or not—that they’ll be confronted by a stranger.
“This affects every Hispanic,” said Lopez, a legal resident of the United States for the past decade. “It’s even affecting the kids. They’re saying ‘We’re not going to play outside because we look very Mexican.’ “
Under the ordinance, Councilman John Jaremchuk proposes people “encountered” by the police who cannot provide proof of residency pay a fine.
Jaremchuk summarized his ordinance in the town’s March newsletter, saying local officials should take up where the federal government appears to have left off in enforcing citizenship status.
“The federal government apparently has no time to go after these individuals, so local government will step in,” Jaremchuk wrote.
Jaremchuk said he has researched the legality of his proposal and believes it could stand up in court. He cited Muehler v. Mena in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this winter that local police could question a suspect on his or her immigration status.
He has some support from the community. Joann Personti, an Elsmere councilwoman, said she’s willing to vote for Jaremchuk’s proposal and has heard positive feedback from constituents in her district.