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Mark Boughton Treads Tricky Line Between GOP Base And Immigrant Constituents

Neil Vigdor
Contact Reporternvigdor@courant.com

On immigration, it’s a tale of two cities for Mark Boughton, as the mayor who wants to be governor has tried to coexist with Danbury’s large immigrant population without alienating conservatives — who he needs to win the Republican nomination.

One week, Dreamers protested outside the city hall office of Danbury’s mayor of 17 years, who the group of undocumented students said has been complicit in the “terroristic tactics” of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The next week, the Republican Party’s endorsed candidate for governor was greeted at the next-to-last primary debate by a banner that said “Boughton [hearts] sanctuary cities.”

The paradox is emblematic of the ongoing tension that the GOP front-runner for Connecticut’s top office is grappling with on immigration in the era of President Donald Trump. Republicans will choose among five candidates in Tuesday’s primary.

“I think the residents of Danbury, regardless of status, know that I’ve got a job to do and there’s a mutual respect,” Boughton said Tuesday. “I can’t condone illegal immigration. They know I won’t support sanctuary cities. They know that Danbury won’t do things like give out ID cards. I’m sympathetic to people’s plight, but at the end of the day we have to enforce the law.”

About one in five residents of Danbury, Connecticut’s seventh-largest city, are from Brazil or Ecuador. There are 43 languages spoken in the public schools. But U.S. Census estimates don’t reflect the city’s undocumented immigrant population, which Boughton said police currently estimate at 5,000 residents.

Immigrant community leaders say Boughton’s sanctioning of a police partnership with ICE a decade ago and the city’s role in the controversial roundup of 11 day laborers, which resulted in a $650,000 settlement, have created lingering mistrust.

So does Boughton’s rhetoric, which they say hasn’t assuaged their fears that he would give Trump an enabler in the governor’s office to carry out deportations of nonviolent undocumented immigrants and punish sanctuary cities.

“They are afraid. They have many questions. What will happen tomorrow?” said Wilson Hernandez, president of the Ecuadorian Civic Center of Greater Danbury and a local restaurateur. “I think he tries to stay in good terms with those who are anti-immigrants.”

Boughton’s critics say that his administration has embraced a number of anti-immigrant policies, starting with a 2005 crackdown on volleyball matches at the homes of some of the city’s Ecuadorian immigrants.

The mayor defended the measure, saying that those hosting the social gatherings were selling food and alcohol, and essentially operating businesses on their properties.

Relations between Boughton and immigrant groups deteriorated demonstrably in 2008, when Boughton and the city council entered Danbury into partnership with federal immigration officials known as 287g. The police department sent two detectives to Quantico, Va., for training with their federal counterparts, who also gave the city’s law enforcement access to an immigration database.

Boughton addressed the controversial Bush-era program during a GOP debate in February, saying that he went to great lengths to explain the partnership to clergy leaders and that it was a success.

“I’ve got to tell you something. This freaked our city out,” Boughton said.

Alfonso Robinson, a Boughton critic and Democratic activist who runs the Hat City Blog, said the mayor was spinning.

“It had a devastating impact in Danbury,” Robinson said. “Businesses shut down. That’s a remarkable statement to make. That was a really sad time. A lot of immigrant citizens thrived on Main Street and people left in droves because they didn’t feel welcome.”

Boughton stood by the city’s participation in the program, saying it led to 22 arrests, including of one undocumented immigrant with six outstanding charges for driving under the influence of alcohol, another charged with sex crimes involving children and one person wanted for murder in Eastern Europe. He said that opponents of immigration enforcement tried to seize on the emotions in the city.

“When President Obama ended [the program], we were disappointed,” Boughton said. “We did everything we could to communicate how the program worked. They were very good at muddying the waters and confusing people. We had Yale busing in kids from New Haven to stand outside city hall to protest.”

Emanuela Palmares, a Brazilian immigrant who is editor of Tribuna, a biweekly newspaper geared toward the city’s immigrant population, said there was “hysteria” when the partnership was first announced.

“All they heard was Danbury police were going to act as ICE,” Palmares said of fellow immigrants. “So it was panic. We, the community leaders, were left to clean up the mess.”

The offices of Tribuna, which was started in 1999 by Palmares’ mother, Celia Bacelar, are two doors down on Main Street from La Mitad del Mundo, Hernandez’s Ecuadorian restaurant.

As Hernandez prepared for this weekend’s Ecuadorian Festival, an annual event that has been attended by Boughton, he said he worries about Boughton pandering to his conservative base on immigration.

“If he is listening too much to the right, then he’s going to do something to please them, as Trump is doing nationwide,” Hernandez said.

Palmares, a Republican who was appointed by Boughton to Danbury’s school board, is supporting the mayor’s latest bid for governor. She said Boughton has made a concerted effort to make immigrants feel like they add value to Danbury, whether it’s participating in their community events or getting them soccer field space at Rogers Park.

“I think when it comes to immigration, more often than not the mayor and I have not been on the same page,” Palmares said. “[But] I think it’s very disingenuous for people to look at him today and not acknowledge that he has evolved.”

One of the most controversial episodes during Boughton’s tenure as mayor came in 2006, when an undercover police officer posed as a contractor looking to hire day laborers to help dismantle a fence. The roundup of the “Danbury 11” led to a federal lawsuit against the city and Boughton’s administration, which were accused of racial profiling. The city agreed to settle the case for $400,000, with the federal government paying an additional $250,000.

“I think he’s going to have a tough time defending that in the general election, should he be the nominee,” said Tim Herbst, who finished second to Boughton for the GOP’s endorsement for governor at the party’s convention. “How they executed [the raid] was very weak and it didn’t show any collaboration with ICE. I think they settled it because they recognized they were vulnerable.”

Herbst, who was Trumbull’s first selectman for eight years, was critical of comments Boughton made to a New Haven radio station in May in which he said he was comfortable with the “status quo” with Connecticut’s immigration policies and would let the Trump administration handle get-tough measures.

“He’s weak on a lot of issues important to Republicans, including immigration,” Herbst said. “That is not somebody I think is going to be tough on sanctuary cities.”

Boughton said that Herbst was taking his comments out of context and that his criticism of the Danbury 11 settlement was contradictory. He pointed out that most of those entangled in the roundup were eventually deported.

“Tim Herbst has no idea what he’s talking about,” Boughton said. “The settlement was based on recommendations of our insurance company. You can’t have it both ways.”

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