Milford- The evening of August 20th Matthew Denice, a newly minted Framingham State University graduate, was riding his motorcycle home when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver.
The driver, who dragged Denice a quarter-mile in the road, was Nicolas Guaman, a 34-year-old Ecuadorian national who had been living in the United States illegally for five years. Almost immediately Denice’s death turned into a flashpoint on illegal immigration in this small former mill town in central Massachussets, where more than 2,000 Ecuadorians have settled over the past decade.
Tragedy on both sides
“We’re devastated,” said Denice’s mother, Maureen Maloney. Denice, who was 23 at the time of his death, planned to pursue a law enforcement job, said Maloney.
“He didn’t like to ride his motorcycle when it was dark,” she said. “He was voted Mr. Dependable in high school. He never got into trouble. He was a clean-cut guy.”
Maloney said her son’s death could have been avoided if strict enforcement of immigration laws had been in place. “If he (Guaman) wouldn’t have been here, this never would have happened,” Maloney said. “But if he was a citizen, I’d be just as upset. The main thing here is that he hit my son, he fled the scene of the accident, he was driving drunk and he didn’t have a license.”
Not too far from Maloneys’ home, Guaman’s family is also suffering for his crime. Guaman worked as a roofer and lived on the first floor of a modest house on Cherry Street with his wife Maria Yupanqui and their six-year-old son. They left three other children in Ecuador with Guaman’s mother.
Now Guaman is being held on $100,000 cash bail. He was indicted Oct. 21st on a second-degree murder charge, as well as other charges, by a grand jury in Worcester. If convicted of murder, he could face a life sentence.
Reached by phone, Yupanqui said she was uncertain about the future. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said, her voice wavering. “We’re very worried.”
Ecuadorians started to come to Milford around 2001 drawn by a construction boom in Massachusetts. Many Ecuadorian men worked as roofers while women stayed at home caring for their children or worked as housekeepers. With their arrival, which followed an influx of Brazilian immigrants, town officials began raising concerns over overcrowded homes and illegal roaming houses. But it was the Ecuadorian population’s rapid growth -from 300 to 2,500 between 2002 and 2007- that led to grievances about the immigrants straining hospitals, housing, schools, courts and other town resources.
After the accident Milford officials called for a crackdown on illegal immigration and asked Governor Deval Patrick to join Secure Communities, a federal program that allows local and state police to send fingerprints of anyone booked in jail to Homeland Security. Patrick is opposed to the program because he says it could lead to racial profiling.
Milford Police Chief Thomas O’ Loughlin supports the program as a tool to get rid off criminals. For example, Guaman had several runs-in with the law, said O’Loughlin. He was arrested three times within three years for driving without a license. In 2008, Guaman was arrested for breaking and entering into a building with the intent to commit a felony.
“If people in the immigrant community are committing crimes, Secure Communities will take care of that,” O’ Loughlin said. “Nobody wants to live next door to a criminal, not even the people in the community where he comes from.”
It’s not the first time that Milford finds itself at odds with their Ecuadorian residents. I first visited Milford in 2007 to report on cultural clashes between the old residents and the newcomers.
Most Ecuadorians in Milford hail from the Andes Mountains of Ecuador, where the majority of the population is of indigenous descent and make a living farming the land. Many speak Quechua, a native dialect, and Spanish as their second language.
And many keep customs from the old country. In 2005, two Ecuadorian women were charged with animal cruelty when they were found dragging and beating a sheep. Some time later, police found a pig slaughtered on a second-floor apartment.
A tight-knit group, Ecuadorians mostly keep to themselves. After the accident, they formed Milford’s Ecuadorian Association to better organize the community, said Ecuador’s Consul Ad-Honorem in Boston, Beatriz Almeida Stein.
Stein came to Milford three weeks after the accident to meet with town leaders in an effort to smooth relations in the community. Instead, she was asked by town officials to come up with a plan to help the town deal with Ecuadorian illegal immigration. Before the meeting, 200 people gathered outside Town Hall to rally against illegal immigration.
Over the past few years, a handful of Ecuadorian-owned stores, including a restaurant serving Ecuador’s typical dishes and two convenience and money-wiring shops, have sprouted on Main Street.
But with the spotlight on them, Ecuadorians are leaving Milford. Many are here illegally and drive without a license. Town officials have announced stricter enforcement of housing regulations. Officials are also seeking to meet with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Ecuadorians worry about the backlash. On a recent afternoon, shop owner Wilson Valdez said he feels sad the accident has turned into a quarrel against illegal immigration.
“What caused the accident wasn’t the fact that Guaman was an illegal immigrant, but that the fact that he was driving drunk,” said Valdez. “There are many accidents like this, in which the drivers are American citizens.”
Guaman’s brother, David, 23, has noted Milford residents treat Ecuadorians differently. “People give us mean looks, ” he said.
Maria Loja, who has lived in Milford for the past four years, was critical of her fellow countrymen. “Why do they have to drink and drive?” she said. “Life is already hard for us. We have to work hard to pay our bills and help our families. Why do they have to make life harder for the rest of us?”
As she walked down Congress Street, not too far from the accident, she had a few words for the Americans as well. “Why do they have to mistreat all of us?” she said. “Why do they have to punish everyone for one person’s mistake?