Forget the wall
On a recent Friday night after Donald Trump was elected America’s 45th president, some students from Wilton High School in Connecticut shouted “build a wall” at a football game. Wilton is the seventh-richest town in one of the most affluent states in the Union. Its 18,000 residents also happen to be about 96 percent white.
The team Wilton was playing hailed from a city two towns up Route 7 from Wilton, but light-years away in every other respect. Gritty Danbury was once the world’s center for hat making. Today, its 80,000 inhabitants – perhaps 90,000 including undocumented immigrants – represent a mix of races and ethnicities, including nearly a third of Hispanic origin. Its residents generate a median family income that is just 40 percent of prosperous Wilton’s.
So the implication of the chant was clear to everyone in the football stadium, and generated outrage in a state that overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton. Among the first to make his displeasure known was Danbury’s Mayor, Mark Boughton, who called the incident “troubling and offensive to our community.” He demanded, and received from Wilton’s principal, a formal apology.
Danbury is also Connecticut’s fastest-growing city, thanks to an influx of workers from Brazil, Ecuador and beyond. It is on the back of that growth that the Hat City’s mayor on Tuesday threw his chapeau into the ring to become governor. Echoing the dystopian rhetoric of the man he voted for, Boughton told the Hartford Courant that: “Connecticut is in a death spiral and I want to pull us out of the death spiral and set us back on the path to success.”
This may sound like a local political story, one of little economic relevance to the bigger vision of Trump’s America. Think again. You see, Boughton’s tale provides an illustrative counter-argument to the wall-building oratory that lifted the former reality-TV star and Chinese-tie purveyor on a sea of foreigner-resentment into the Oval Office.
Though he may not present himself this way in his bid to oust Democrat Dannel Malloy from the governor’s mansion – should Malloy foolishly run for a third term – Boughton is the original Trumpkin. Back before he was cutting ribbons at Mexican restaurants and tweeting good naturedly about the zombie-apocalypse TV series “The Walking Dead,” Boughton was a pioneer of rounding up hard-working immigrants and throwing them in jail.
As the Danbury News-Times recounts, on September 19, 2006, Jose Froilan Llibisupa and 10 other Ecuadorians climbed into the back of a van whose driver said he was looking for men to take apart a fence. Llibisupa was then handcuffed and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, transported to Hartford and then moved to jail in Boston, where he spent the next five years locked up. Others were sent further afield.
Danbury police officers conducted the sting working in cahoots with federal agents. That, along with his calls to have state police officers authorized to enforce immigration law, made Boughton a cause célèbre among the close-the-borders brigade. It even earned him an appearance on television with Lou Dobbs.
In 2008, Boughton told the New York Times the crackdown on laborers waiting to be picked up by contractors to perform back-breaking work in affluent neighboring towns, like Wilton, was supported by “the middle 60-70 percent” of Danbury residents. He may be right about that. The former high school history teacher and son of a previous mayor handily won eight consecutive elections for the $107,000-a-year position since 2001.
Boughton’s past, however, is entirely relevant to his pitch to make Connecticut – the state that gave the world the cotton gin, the Colt .45 revolver, the portable typewriter, the nuclear sub and the Frisbee – great again. His exploratory bid is called the Connecticut Comeback Committee. As was the case with Trump, Boughton and his party have a real opportunity to snatch the governor’s office back from the Democrats by focusing almost exclusively on economic issues.
And here lies the irony. After his roundup of immigrants earned him national notoriety, Danbury’s economy suffered. Fearing they’d be handcuffed by local cops, many immigrants kept out of the public eye, avoiding shopping on Danbury’s Main Street, which once quartered a grand opera house. Some stores closed down in solidarity with community groups who opposed Boughton’s vows to capture immigrants.
Main Street Danbury today is still a bit down at the heels. It has been that way ever since a mall opened in 1986 on the outskirts of town in the old fairgrounds. But empty storefronts are filling up, like the old Meeker’s Hardware, which sold nails and hammers from 1885 until 2012. Today Vazquez SoccerChamp Sports sells soccer balls and cleats, and is run by an Ecuadorian. From Andean restaurants to Brazilian bridal gowns, downtown Danbury is back in business.
That may be more a credit to the American justice system than the city’s Burgermeister. Five years ago, the Danbury 11 had their day in court. The city agreed to pay the men $400,000 to settle a federal lawsuit prosecuted by the Worker and Immigration Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale University and some white-shoe lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. The federal government also paid $250,000 as part of the settlement.
Michael Wishnie, a Yale Law School professor who represented the day laborers, told the News-Times “the Danbury 11 case was part of a nationwide movement against immigrant abuses, and on a state level, it discouraged other leaders in Connecticut to pursue Boughton’s anti-immigration policies.” It also helped Danbury to move on, and its new residents – like the Italians and Irish who came a century before to work in the hat factories – to emerge from the shadows. The economic benefit they bring with them is something President-elect Trump – and his mayoral mini-me in the Hat City – ought to keep front and center.