Born in illegality
Several reports in this morning's Times describe an increase in the number of Brazilian immigrants charged by police with unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle. This and other offenses, such as operating an uninsured and unregistered motor vehicle, have increasingly occupied Island law enforcement officers and Dukes County District Court personnel. The enormous growth in the need for Portuguese-speaking interpreters and the court's aggregation of criminal matters involving Brazilians facing such charges on certain days of the week are of only limited use in quantifying and describing the problems and costs associated with the increase in the number of illegal aliens resident in the six Vineyard towns. But, these reports, limited as they are, suggest that here are issues that Vineyarders and their leaders must address.
A commendable effort, carefully qualified and candidly set forth, is the letter and pamphlet explaining Massachusetts's motor vehicle laws, created by the Oak Bluffs Police Department and distributed over Chief Erik Blake's signature. Addressed to the "Members of the Oak Bluffs Brazilian Community" Chief Blake's letter seeks an "open and honest dialogue" between the addressees and the Oak Bluffs police. Chief Blake wants his audience to understand both its responsibilities under the law and those of his officers and him. He promises that his department will behave in keeping with its core values of "service, integrity and professionalism," and, he continues, "This means treating everyone in our community with dignity and respect, courtesy, and providing open access to the criminal justice system."
Ultimately, however, the chief explains in his cover letter, "In many communities throughout our nation, however, there is an ongoing social and political debate over immigration. I want to make firmly clear that our legal authority defines our moral authority. Oak Bluffs Police do not have the authority to enforce federal immigration laws. That authority belongs exclusively to the United States government, and the Oak Bluffs Police Department does not now, nor will it, attempt to enforce immigration law. Nonetheless, our officers have an obligation to enforce the laws of the Commonwealth, to make lawful arrests for violations of those laws, and will do so without regard to one's immigration status."
Chief Blake has it exactly right, of course. It is all he can do and say. But nationally and even locally, immigration is in chaos. The responsibility for that chaos is political. And, it all stems from the illegal residency and the language barriers. Our treatment of members of the Brazilian community, our neighbors in so many ways, is in fact exploitative. They are illegal, so they cannot get valid identity documents, so they cannot get driving licenses or insurance. They must work so, unlicensed, they drive unregistered and uninsured automobiles, or automobiles registered and insured by their employers, breaking the law mile after mile. They hide from and fear law enforcement, even such determinedly fair and limited law enforcement as Chief Blake promises. Unable to sign leases or to maintain bank accounts, these neighbors often live in dormitory-style housing in ordinary Vineyard residential neighborhoods. They are exploited by Vineyard employers when they work at jobs for which they may be paid decently but qualify for none of the security and benefits due legal workers or American citizens. In all these ways, we take advantage of the harsh limits placed on some members of the Brazilian community because of their illegal residency. It's ugly and corrosive, and although Chief Blake and his officers are doing exactly what they are pledged to do, we have not done enough.