Milford’s Melting Pot Boils Over

Brian C. Mooney, Boston Globe, July 13, 2010

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The tensions that sometimes boil over in Milford are simmering in other towns across the state, turning immigration into a key issue in state political races this year.

The Legislature passed a budget with language specifying restrictions on public benefits available to the estimated 150,000 to 250,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts. It was a watered-down version of a tougher amendment passed in the Senate, stirring passionate debate about illegal immigration in an atmosphere made more combustible by a combination of high unemployment, strained-to-the-limit state and local budgets, and election-year politics.

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For all the complaints today about illegal immigrants in town, Milford, which is located about 16 miles southeast of Worcester, celebrates its rich history as an immigrant gateway. There are monuments paying tribute to the Irish, Italian, and Portuguese immigrants who began arriving here a century or more ago.

In the melting-pot enclave of Prospect Heights, a World War II memorial honors “those who came to America to find freedom and a better life.” The monument is adorned with ceramic flags of the nations they came from: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Armenia, Poland, and Greece.

{snip} “People are resentful at the number of public programs that are used by this population,” she [Marie Parente, a former Democratic state representative] said. “We’re allowing lawbreakers to access our programs.”

“We’re opposed to illegal immigration . . . because it’s illegal,” said John Seaver, a former selectman. {snip}

Undocumented immigrants are not entitled to welfare-type cash assistance or food stamps. Under a US Supreme Court ruling, they may enroll in public schools. And under other court rulings or statutes, if they are poor or meet certain income guidelines, they can receive free treatment in emergency rooms, medical and nutritional aid for low-income children and mothers, and obtain public housing in state-funded developments.

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But Bertorelli, a grandson of Italian and Irish immigrants, said a flood of illegal immigrants several years ago created a “very dangerous overcrowding” problem when landlords and sometimes tenants began to turn multifamily homes into lodging houses, illegally creating groups of one-room units in a single apartment.

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“What we witnessed most of all were unsanitary conditions the tenants were living in,” said Mazzuchelli [Paul Mazzuchelli, Milford’s director of health]. “Who was the victim? It was the tenant. They were immigrants. They were scared. They weren’t going to complain.”

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O’Loughlin estimates there are between 2,000 and 2,500 Ecuadorans and more than 1,000 Brazilians still residing in Milford, down from perhaps double that total two years ago. Most are here illegally, the chief said.

State data for 2008-09 show that 17.2 percent of the students in the town’s public schools speak a first language other than English, about 12 percent higher than the statewide average. The figure has increased in nine of the last 10 years.

The Ecuadorans are the most visible and isolated of the linguistic minorities in Milford. Many are members of indigenous tribes in Ecuador’s rural interior, and some arrived here illiterate, speaking neither English nor Spanish but one of the unwritten Quechuan dialects of South America’s Andean region.

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Last fall, a Milford man, Richard Grossi, died of injuries suffered after his vehicle was hit by a car driven by an unlicensed Portuguese woman who has been in the country illegally for several years. Police said Maria Leite admitted running through a stop sign. On July 1, after a hearing in the Milford court, she was taken into custody by federal immigration officers pending trial on a charge of motor vehicle homicide.

Such cases often spark an outraged and inflammatory response from residents, exacerbating tensions.

While there are outspoken critics of the immigrants in Milford, there are many others trying to help them assimilate.

At St. Mary’s, many find help and a haven. Father Manny, as Clavijo [the Rev. Manuel Clavijo, associate pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Church] is known, oversees a large Hispanic ministry that reaches out to other immigrants, too.

On a weeknight last month in the parish center hall, the 33-year-old native of Colombia participated in a graduation ceremony for dozens of students in a growing English as a second language program.

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