Photo: H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media
DANBURY – A key difference between longtime GOP Mayor Mark Boughton and Democratic challenger Al Almeida is the degree of unity they believe they can create in the city one decade after immigration tensions pulled it apart.
Almeida, who came to the United States from Portugal when he was 11, says Boughton’s crusade against illegal immigration during that period created a divide so wide that it has yet to close.
“I believe that everyone deserves equal dignity and respect, and it doesn’t matter where they came from or how they got here,” Almeida said during an Editorial Board meeting last week at The News-Times. “My goal is to bring them all together.”
Boughton, a 16-year incumbent whose chances of becoming the Republican nominee for governor in 2018 depend in part on selling Danbury as the shining star among Connecticut cities, said the city does a good job of integrating immigrants into the community.
“More often than not we are one city, and I can cite several programs we do,” Boughton said last week at The News-Times editorial board meeting. “Every day we try to make people feel comfortable and let them know we value them, we care for them, and we want them to become part of the community.”
Owing in large part to immigration from abroad, Danbury ranks as the fastest-growing city in Connecticut. Latinos now make up as many as 40 percent of the city’s 85,000 residents.
Nowhere is that diversity more apparent than in the city school system, where 40 languages are spoken, and where enrollment is jumping by as much as 2.5 percent a year at a time when suburban school districts across the state are shrinking.
But while Danbury ranked high in recent surveys as a desirable place to live because of its low unemployment rate, low crime rate and ethnic diversity, it was only 10 years ago that it was it convulsed by City Hall’s war on illegal immigration. The flashpoint came in 2006, when 11 day laborers were ensnared by city officers posing as contractors and were turned over to federal immigration agents.
The case of the “Danbury 11,” which drew national attention, was settled for $400,000 by the city after the day laborers filed a lawsuit alleging racial profiling.
Although Hispanic leaders agree that relations with City Hall have vastly improved since then, some observers say it’s no more than an uneasy truce.
“The administration has created a culture to separate the city in two,” said Almeida, an investigator in the Danbury Public Defender’s office and a decorated combat veteran. “In some cases the Latino community is starting to come out, but a lot more of them are afraid to come out, because of what is going on in Washington, D.C., and because of what happened in the city 12 years ago.”
Almeida was referring to President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration and Boughton’s request in 2005 to deputize state police for immigration enforcement in Danbury.
Boughton, who calls himself a compassionate conservative, told The News-Times in 2014 that “I have learned more about the issue of illegal immigration than probably any mayor in Connecticut.”
At the same time, Boughton has supported parts of Trump’s policy on undocumented immigrants. In February, he said Danbury would cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts in the city, and he has spoken out against other Connecticut cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration agents.
At Thursday’s News-Times meeting, Boughton listed several initiatives, partnerships and projects City Hall has undertaken to improve relations with the city’s immigrants, including outreach to business owners and holding workshops with police.
“One of our biggest challenges is to get the word out to people that this is their community and we want them to buy into it,” Boughton said. “We want your thoughts and ideas on how to make it better.”
Almeida said the city does not do enough to help Latino immigrants learn about their responsibilities and opportunities as Americans.
He stopped short, however, of identifying specific programs he would put in place as mayor, except to say he would invite counselors from foreign consulates to help immigrants navigate red tape.
“I do believe we could do a better job of integrating them into our society and help them understand the laws of the United States,” Almeida said. “You can still be proud of your culture and your heritage, but this is where you live, and for you to fit in, you have to do certain things.
“We want law-abiding citizens in our community,” Almeida said.
Boughton said City Hall is working with the downtown merchant group CityCenter to help immigrant entrepreneurs understand the value of appealing to the widest possible audience, by providing menus and other product information in English and by reducing display clutter on store windows.
He said City Hall has partnerships with the Hispanic Center and the Ecuadorian Civic Center to provide acculturation programs and volunteer opportunities.
“I go to their events, whether it is the swearing-in of an officer or a dinner, to let people know they are valued members of our community, and we want them to continue to add to it,” Boughton said.
The city has also recently completed a heritage park that features a sculpture of a hatter, in homage to the immigrants who worked in Danbury’s signature industry.
“I also think you are seeing a good thing with more participation in the political process,” Boughton said of the campaign for the Nov. 7 election.
“We have a Brazilian-American running on (the GOP) ticket, an Ecuadorian-American running on our ticket, and a Dominican-American running on our ticket,” he said. “It is good we see people on both sides of the aisle that are getting involved in the process, because that shows buy-in to the community.”