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Romanian immigrants spark unease in California borough

| Saturday, July 15, 2017, 2:57 p.m.
Stephen Huba
Downtown California is replete with signs for available housing in the borough, some of which has been taken by recent immigrants from Romania.
Stephen Huba
California Borough in Washington County has been thrown into turmoil with the recent arrival of immigrants believed to be from Romania.

Romanian immigrants who have settled in California are provoking a sometimes-heated debate in the Washington County borough about immigration and the limits of tolerance.

The families, believed to be Roma, a stateless ethnic minority from Eastern Europe, started arriving — legally — in California about two months ago and have been moving into former Cal U student housing units. They and others said they just want a safe place to live.

Their reception by bewildered borough residents has been mixed. Some have reacted with suspicion, circulating a petition titled “End Housing of Illegal Immigrants in California” that has received more than 1,100 signatures. Many of those who signed said they are afraid of the foreigners. Census figures show the town has a population of about 7,000.

On Thursday, at a standing-room-only meeting of California council, some accused the newcomers of hazardous driving, shoplifting, defecating in public, accumulating refuse in their yards and slaughtering chickens in view of neighbors.

“It's not the point that they're immigrants. It's the point that they don't follow our laws,” said Dawne Roberts of Coal Center, who charged that the immigrants have had an impact on her adjacent community.

“This is a problem that snuck up on us,” said council President Patsy Alfano, who suggested the borough find interpreters and determine the leaders among the immigrants to begin a dialogue.

“We need to let them know what the rules are, what we're going to tolerate and what we expect of them if they're going to become part of our community,” he said.

Others reported having friendly encounters with immigrant families and being invited to eat barbecue with them.

A group of Roma sitting outside their apartments in the area of Second, Third and Mechanic streets Friday declined to speak to a reporter. Some of them said they were in town for the wake of a family member and were preparing to leave.

A man sitting at the Vito Dentino Agency, a property management firm, declined to give his name but said he and his family came from New York about two months ago. He said he did not feel safe in New York.

“Here in California, it's beautiful people. No dangerous people,” he said.

Cultural differences

Borough resident Lisa Buday, an attorney, urged community members not to harshly judge the immigrants based on cultural differences. “We are human beings. Guess what? They are, too,” she said.

Buday said she was prompted to speak after attending the just-concluded 2017 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Indianapolis, which had a session on the importance of welcoming immigrants. She would like to solicit involvement from local churches and form an ad hoc committee to assist the families.

“What can we do to help them understand the expectations of those in the community, and what can we do to build community with them?” she said.

Complaints about the newcomers centered on the fact no one knew they were coming or why.

Ankle monitors

Dr. Richard Martin, borough administrator, said at Thursday's meeting that the families are not illegal immigrants but are here through a program of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The electronic ankle monitors worn by some suggest they are subject to tracking because they “didn't have proper documentation to remain in the country” and are involved in due process proceedings, he said.

ICE spokesman Adrian Smith confirmed Friday that some of the immigrants are part of the Alternatives to Detention program.

“The ATD program is a flight-mitigation tool that uses technology and case management to increase compliance with release conditions and facilitates compliance with court hearings and final orders of removal, while allowing individuals to remain in their community,” Smith said.

Smith said ICE does not place participants in specific communities but allows those eligible for release to choose where they will reside.

“There are ATD program participants living in California,” Smith said. “ICE catalogs and monitors the residence the participant identifies. Trained ATD officers make a determination on the most appropriate level of case management and technology assignment.”

An attractive place for new arrivals

Martin said borough officials received no notice that the families planned to settle in California. He said they apparently selected the community “because we have affordable, available housing.”

“They were told California would be a place to go because it's a college town, and college towns are more liberal,” said Realtor broker Dentino. “The people in this community have to have some patience, some understanding and be willing to work with them.”

Dentino, who manages numerous rental properties in town, said he has leased about 30 apartments to the immigrant families and has no more vacancies to offer them.

“I think it's really blown a lot out of proportion,” he said of the complaints about the newcomers. “They're not violent. … Their frustration is they can't speak English, and our frustration is we can't speak Romanian.”

A tolerant town

Borough businessman Wayne Cekola, who has nine families living in his properties, said California seems to have the right combination of affordable housing and tolerance, thanks to the presence of Cal U.

“We're totally willing to work with them if they're willing to work with us,” he said.

Cekola said the families arrived with virtually no possessions — just clothes, pillows and blankets. One family he visited was sleeping on a piece of carpet.

“I think the churches ought to get involved,” he said.

Cekola said some of the men form convoys Sunday nights and drive to Baltimore for construction jobs that they work during the week. They return on Friday nights.

Brownsville resident Lee Miller, 33, said he is concerned about the immigrants' presence in the community, especially because they seem to be flouting laws and disregarding community standards.

“If they were oppressed in their country and came here for that freedom, don't take advantage of a good thing,” he said. “These people are gladly welcomed in our community, but just don't do the filthy stuff.”

Few legal run-ins

Police Chief Rick Encapera acknowledged there have been incidents of defecation and at least one traffic citation issued to an immigrant in a hit-and-run accident.

But he said there have been no borough criminal charges against any of the immigrants. He said they have not violated local livestock regulations, which prohibit only raising of chickens in the town.

When any of the immigrants has been accused of property damage, he said, family members have made restitution. When one vehicle was “booted” because of multiple unpaid parking tickets, the owner promptly paid the fine and others from the group who had pending tickets also paid theirs, he said.

Staff writer Jeff Himler contributed. Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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