Thursday, November 16, 2006

Town settles suit on Latino laborers

Freehold must pay $278,000 in fees and respect rights of migrants

Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff

Ending a three-year legal struggle with its day laborer population, Freehold Borough has settled a lawsuit that alleged the town targeted Latino immigrants in employment and housing code enforcement.

The settlement, which still has to be approved by a federal judge, requires the county seat of Monmouth to shell out $278,000 in attorney fees and reimbursement funds and establishes a police protocol for enforcing certain regulations against immigrants.

The settlement comes as Congress and the national political parties are debating what do about burgeoning immigration -- and the strains it is putting on local and state budgets. Critics of the Freehold crackdown called the agreement a huge victory and a cautionary tale for other communities employing similar hardball tactics against burgeoning immigrant populations.

"It's a victory for the rights of people," said Mahonnry Hidalgo, chairman of the immigration committee of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey. "At the same time, it's sad that taxpayers, including Latinos who live there, will have to deal with this expense. There are better ways to solve this, and we hope the next town in New Jersey that wants to do this will think twice."

Stan Organek, spokesman for Monmouth County Residents for Immigration Rights, one of the groups that sued the borough, agreed that other towns had been put on notice that "there can be consequences to taking steps that will be found unconstitutional."

But an unrepentant Mayor Michael Wilson vowed to continue enforcing the housing codes and laws of the borough.

"A little respect for the law-abiding citizens of Freehold would go a long way toward making our residents more understanding of how we can resolve these hard questions that are caused by national immigration policy," Wilson said.

The settlement, approved Monday night by the Borough Council, is the the result of long-simmering tensions that accompanied the explosion of the Latino population in the two-square-mile community. Some long-time residents blamed the new arrivals for swelling school populations and straining services, driving up taxes.

A gravel area between Conrail railroad tracks and Throckmorton Street, about a half mile from the central business district, became an impromptu muster zone for day laborers, many of them illegal immigrants from southern Mexico who sought work for contractors or landscapers.

As the zone expanded and residents stepped up complaints, Wilson announced plans in the fall of 2003 to shut it down on Jan. 1, 2004. Civil rights advocates sued the borough, and in March 2004, U.S. District Judge Anne E. Thompson ordered it to reopen a portion of the zone that is on public property.

But the issues went beyond the rights of the immigrants to gather for work, however, and the underlying civil lawsuit continued. Attorneys for the immigrant groups alleged borough officials and residents often targeted their living situations -- violating their civil rights in the process -- in an effort to drive them out of town.

Renee Steinhagen, executive director of the New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, one of the organizations that sued, said Freehold agreed in the settlement to treat the immigrants lawfully and respect their rights.

She said housing-code inspectors will no longer be allowed to conduct inspections without resident consent. Owners will be given time to correct violations. And while a police officer will be allowed to accompany inspectors, he will not enter the premises unless an incident occurs.

Day laborers, meanwhile, will continue to use the public portion of the muster zone. The borough will set up a $33,000 fund to reimburse Latino residents fined for loitering or certain housing-code violations, dating back to Jan. 1, 2002. The borough will pay its adversaries' legal fees, estimated at $245,000.

Steinhagen said the settlement "has ramifications beyond Freehold as to the rights of people, regardless of their documentation status. It's sort of setting the parameters for the other debates about immigration."

Praising the outcome of negotiations in what he called a "difficult social situation," retired state Supreme Court Justice Daniel O'Hern, who served as mediator, acknowledged an ongoing statewide struggle in areas with growing immigrant populations.

"Immigration reform is a national issue. Persons who have entered this country without documentation are nonetheless persons entitled to the protections of the (U.S.) Constitution and laws of the United States and this state," he said in a prepared statement. "We have seen other communities that have reacted to this social migration with repression and outright harassment."

Staff writer Brian Dononue contributed to this report. Mary Ann Spoto may be reached at or (732) 462-8603.


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