Unitarian Universalists in Danbury, Connecticut, help immigrants directly every week.
Their destination: Kennedy Park. Not much of a park, it’s more parking lot and bus stop with a tiny green plaza. Nearly fifty Latino men emerged from store entries and park benches. As if choreographed, they snapped into a neat line behind a hastily set up camp table to get a cup of coffee.
The scene has replayed at this time every week for the past six years—in rain and snow, frigid cold and scorching sun. This street ministry to day laborers is one of a handful of ongoing social justice projects supported by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury (UUCD), most of which serve the city’s sizable immigrant population.
Middle schooler Tehya Sweeney eagerly passed out cracker snack packs and wool socks, each different, donated by individual church members. “Gracias, gracias,” the workers told the girl. Sometimes they put the socks on immediately and threw out the ones they were wearing.
Lynn Taborsak, co-chair of UUCD’s Social Action Committee, was right behind her, passing out flyers in Spanish about the Comida Food Pantry the church runs on Friday afternoons across the street. This winter, with so little snow removal work, the line ran out the door and around the corner with men who didn’t find work, in addition to the usual women and children. “¿Sabes cocinar? Do you know how to cook?” asked Taborsak, and the men laughed, “Seguro. Sure.”
Taborsak stopped to ask Humberto, a short, older Ecuadoran man, about his wage claim with the state. For six years Humberto had a steady job for a landscaper, working twelve hours a day, seven days a week. A year ago his boss subcontracted Humberto to work for another landscaper. He was never paid his final $1,800 and has worked little since.
The activists use the coffee line to find out what’s going on—who bought a Visa card at Walmart that doesn’t work, who got a bad check. Working with the interfaith Association of Religious Communities (ARC) office across the street, they offer resources for wage, medical, housing, food, language, legal, and other needs.
To prove his boss was obligated to pay him, Humberto brought photos of himself wearing clothing, for all seasons, with his boss’s company logo. He won the claim. His boss had just called, he told Taborsak, to ask if he could pay little by little.
Lynn, I don’t like this,” Elke Sweeney called over from the coffee table. An African-American man had told her he’d spent the previous night on a porch. Danbury’s overflow homeless shelters shut down in April after the worst cold has passed. The shelter run by the city, which borders New York State, requires a Connecticut ID. They told him about another shelter. “Keep your head up,” Sweeney said, encouraging him to come by the health clinic where she works to have his eye looked at.
A blue pickup slowed to the curb. Three young guys threw themselves on the passenger door with a whack. The driver held up one finger, and the man with his hand on the handle jumped in. The hiring was settled before the truck had even come to a complete stop. The driver revved the engine toward the day’s job.
Everything happens quickly in Kennedy Park. In just fifteen minutes the coffee servers packed up, too, and the remaining workers dispersed into the shadows.
Social justice is the lifeblood of the UU Congregation of Danbury. In 2003 the church moved from its wooded suburban “barn” to be closer to the inner city. Each of the 155 members is asked at the beginning of each year to contribute volunteer time, material donations, or both.
The Danbury church was one of the first congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association to take up immigration justice as a ministry. Many others have followed suit, and UUA leaders have made immigration justice one of the association’s top public witness priorities. At the “Justice General Assembly” in Phoenix, Arizona, June 20–24, the eyes of the denomination will be turned to how our country treats its immigrants. As denominational leaders and congregational delegates gather in Arizona, the UUA is also inviting Unitarian Universalists to form partnerships with immigrant rights and service organizations in their communities during the “National Days of Witness” campaign.
In 2005 Danbury became a lightning rod for both sides of the immigration issue. About a quarter of its 80,000 population is Latino, and an estimated 12 to 25 percent of the city’s population could be undocumented, based on the number of tax returns that have no Social Security numbers.
That year Mayor Mark Boughton, now in his sixth term, made national news when he called for state police to be deputized as immigration agents and proposed an ordinance aimed at shutting down outdoor volleyball games popular among Danbury’s large Ecuadoran community. He also instituted a “unified neighborhood inspection team,” encouraging residents to report overcrowded housing and other violations, which many interpreted as targeting the Latino community. Boughton has repeatedly said that immigration is at the top of his agenda.
Also that spring, a group called Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Control, with leadership coming from other parts of the state, called its inaugural meeting at Danbury’s American Legion hall. Group members wrote letters to the editor and were quoted in the paper linking terrorism and tuberculosis to immigration. The board of the UU church voted to picket the event with signs such as “No Human Being Is Illegal,” and in June 2005 church members joined thousands of Anglos and Latinos in a “unity march” from Kennedy Park down Main Street.
A climate of fear moved in like a storm over the city, which boasts a low crime rate. UUCD members report that it suddenly became commonplace to witness Anglos accost Spanish speakers and brown-skinned people out on the street and in businesses: “Go back where you came from,” “Speak English,” and much worse. “When you heard and saw the undercurrent of hatred, how could you not respond, even if you were afraid yourself?” asks Mary Collins, UUCD’s director of religious education.
In September 2006, a Danbury police officer, posing as a contractor looking for help tearing down a fence, drove a van into Kennedy Park and picked up eleven Ecuadoran laborers. Instead of taking them to work, he took them to the police parking lot, where federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were waiting, guns drawn, the workers reported. The sting polarized the city. More arrests followed.
A Yale University legal clinic filed a suit on behalf of the “Danbury Eleven,” arguing their civil rights were violated by racial profiling. No particular perpetrator or crime was targeted, and it was illegal for city officials to enforce federal civil law, the plaintiffs alleged. In March 2011 the city agreed to pay $400,000 to settle the suit—the largest settlement ever won by day laborers, their lawyers said—in addition to nearly $1 million in city legal fees.
Some police organizations have criticized moves to enlist police in immigration enforcement. In 2011, the Major Cities Chiefs Association stated that “local police enforcing federal immigration law . . . undermines the trust and cooperation with immigrant communities which are essential elements of community oriented policing.” Police cannot address domestic violence, drug trafficking, and other crimes when a large portion of a city’s population is too frightened to talk to them.
Yet Mayor Boughton has continued to champion the idea that local police should root out undocumented immigrants—a platform local activists suspect positions him for higher office. In early 2008, despite the biggest protest the city had ever seen, Boughton got approval to train city police to handle immigration violations, through the controversial federal 287(g) program under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Fears ratcheted again. Latinos, regardless of immigration status, have been fleeing for more welcoming towns in the state, observers say. Many of the storefronts in the revitalized downtown, which had been owned and patronized by Latinos, were left vacant long before the economic recession.
How to restore peace and trust to Danbury? That was the question at an interfaith workshop after the raid. One idea was a coffee ministry, and UU social action leaders Chris Halfar and Charley Stark signed on. “Lots of people were throwing bricks, but nobody was offering hospitality and welcome,” Taborsak remembers.
Just serving coffee and giving away socks, gloves, and water bottles during that tense chapter of the city’s history took some courage. Police on bikes rode circles around the little coffee table. On dark winter mornings, several cruisers trained their brights on it. Twice the ARC storefront window across the street, where the coffee is brewed, was smashed, with a rock and a bullet.
The volunteers learned about the immigrants’ fears, too: a pregnant wife at home with kids whose husband went to the park in the morning but never came home, only to discover days later he was in ICE detention in another state; nonprofits that started asking for ID before giving out Thanksgiving turkeys; a drop of 900 in subsidized school lunches, because parents would rather have kids go hungry than give addresses and risk their kids coming home to an empty house.
The church’s activists wanted to do more. They led worship services about immigration justice. At one, Social Action Committee members wore signs made of rough cardboard hung with rope around their necks: “Limey.” “Kike.” “Hymie.” “Pollock.” “Mick.” “Bohunk.” “Wop.” “Kraut.” Charley Stark gave a U.S. history of immigration policy, passing around 1920s New York Times editorials denouncing immigrants, white immigrants—in many cases, the parents and grandparents of those present. No one mentioned the signs.
They invited recent immigrants to speak. One said tearfully it was the first time he’d felt welcome in an Anglo church. Thiago Lima, a track letterman and honors student who won a scholarship to Tufts University, told the congregation how ICE agents had come knocking when he was home with his little brother. The boys were citizens, but their Brazilian mother, Tereza Pereira, was still waiting on a citizenship application filed ten years before. The agents forced him to call her where she was housecleaning and ask her to come home without saying why. In front of her children, they handcuffed her and took her to a detention center in Maine.
As at many UU congregations, the arguments about immigration fall into two camps: those compelled to offer compassion and oppose immigration and economic policies that hurt families through overly harsh enforcement; and those who believe that, even if the line is long, the law must be respected.
“I do not agree with our congregation,” said Truus Teeuwissen, a UUCD member who emigrated from Holland with a green card in 1966 and naturalized in 1981. “I’m sure things have changed a lot. I know people want a better life, and I don’t begrudge them that. But we are rewarding people who have behaved illegally. If every person did their own thing, why have laws? We don’t always like them, but we have to abide by them. Otherwise, we have a real mess.”
After a year of education, the social activists changed some minds. In 2008 the congregation overwhelmingly voted to become a New Sanctuary congregation—the first religious organization in Connecticut to do so—pledging to “protect immigrants against hate, workplace discrimination, and unjust deportation.”
The Danbury congregation’s commitment to immigration justice underpins most of its social action: a winter coat drive; letter writing and demonstrating; and volunteering at a soup kitchen, shelter, and a model elementary school attended by Latino immigrants’ children.
“These are the next generation of Americans. I don’t care about their immigration status,” said Charlie Schott, a retired IBM software developer who became active at UUCD in 2005. “They aren’t going anywhere. There’s no better example of ‘thinking globally and acting locally’ than giving our community’s children an education and lots of love.”
Things have calmed in Danbury. In 2010 Mayor Boughton lost his bid for lieutenant governor. The church has soldiered on. UUCD members took forty-four Danbury immigrants by bus to the March for America in Washington, D.C., in 2010. The immigrants were so excited to travel outside Danbury, they even took pictures of the George Washington Bridge in the middle of the night, Taborsak said.
“These ministries build our souls,” said Halfar, who is retired from the New York City schools. “It’s so much in my blood now. I spent fifteen years in New York City and never had a meaningful interaction with homeless people.”
Schott interjected, “We don’t know till we see the other person and hear their story, that could be me under slightly different circumstances.”
In 2011 church members sent more than 100 letters in support of the DREAM Act, which would permit undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates. Taborsak, who worked thirty years as a plumber and served eight years as a state representative, went to Hartford to testify. After a nine-hour Republican senate filibuster, the law passed, making Connecticut the thirteenth DREAM Act state.
“Our system of immigration law is broken, unfair, and it doesn’t relate to the U.S. need for labor,” Taborsak says. “It’s specifically unfair to people with darker skin. People criticize me quite often. It’s my faith that makes me this way. I do believe in the dignity of all persons. I believe in justice for everyone. I believe we shouldn’t deport anyone who is here with no criminal convictions, who is making a better life for themselves.”'
Photo at top: Volunteers Patricia Bowen, Bob Taborsak (a member of the UU Congregation of Danbury), Frank Segarra, Tehya Sweeney, and Elke Sweeney set up a camp table to pass out coffee, socks, and cracker snack packs to day laborers in Danbury, Connecticut, early one Friday morning in April 2012. The UU congregation has been sponsoring this weekly outreach to immigrants for eight years as part of its immigrant ministry. (Kimberly French)
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Kimberly French, a UU World contributing editor, has also written for Salon, Tikkun, Utne Reader, and other publications. She leads the Climate Justice Team at First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough, Massachusetts, and chairs her town’s Community Preservation Committee.
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