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Staff Writer

A proposed ordinance would make renting housing to illegal immigrants in Keyport a crime, punishable by hefty fines to landlords.

On Oct. 3, Keyport Councilman Joseph Wedick proposed an ordinance that would be aimed at controlling overcrowded housing in the borough. He said the law might be introduced Oct. 17.

"Leasing or renting within Keyport to anyone who is here illegally, I'd like to curtail that," Wedick said. If enacted, the aggressive plan of action would be used "to get an idea of the impact on neighborhoods," Wedick said.

How would the new law be enforced?

"At the time of the issuance of the [certificate of occupancy], the person who is being leased to or rented to would have to provide documentation they are here legally," Wedick said.

The law would also come into play if a home was issued multiple code, health or noise violations, Wedick explained, leading code enforcers and/or police to conduct an investigation.

Two nearby examples of similar legislation can be seen in Hazelton, Pa., where it is now illegal to hire or rent to an illegal alien, and in Riverside, Burlington County, where protests occurred last month when its governing body enacted such a law.

Wedick, who reviewed the Riverside ordinance, said he does not want Keyport to outlaw hiring illegal immigrants, only renting to them.

"It has nothing to do with employment," Wedick said. "That's a federal and state matter and doesn't have anything to do with this ordinance. We're not looking to restrict anybody's ability to work. This is between the borough and the landlords."

At the meeting, Wedick noted that a recent fire in town revealed illegal immigrants are living in unhealthy conditions. Often crammed into small apartments meant for one or two occupants, Wedick said landlords need to take responsibility in order to end overcrowding.

"At one place, the fire department found six mattresses stockpiled in there," Wedick said, later explaining the men were living in a garage owned by their employer. "It's not fair to them, the illegals. It's subhuman conditions, some of these places. I don't want it in Keyport."

At the meeting, Councilman Robert Bergen said the problem was about code enforcement. Laws already exist to protect renters, he said, but they are not enforced.

"I'm concerned about landlords charging them much more than they should be," Bergen said. "That's my concern, not the people who are living there."

Wedick said he thought a new law was necessary.

"As police commissioner of this town, I'm telling you, I want it taken care of and I want it handled locally," Wedick said. "I don't want Keyport to wake up one day and find out seven people died because [of overcrowded conditions]. I'm not looking to segregate anyone out because of their nationality. This would apply to every nationality on the face of the earth."

If approved, Wedick's ordinance would heavily impact Keyport's Latino residents, many of whom officials believe to be living illegally in the borough.

Mayor John Merla said the idea seemed "worth looking into."

"Might I suggest a $1,000 fine to the landlord on the first violation and double on the second?" Wedick said.

Strong public reaction

A heated argument erupted between two residents as a result of the proposal, ending in a police officer physically restraining one of the men during the public comment portion of the meeting. Resident Ron Kmetz approached resident Isaiah Cooper after Cooper defended the borough's Mexican population.

Kmetz, of Second Street, said many illegal immigrants in his neighborhood are drunkards and vandals.

"Last summer I had a drunk Mexican sleeping on my front lawn," Kmetz said, adding that his neighbor experienced a similar incident, waking one morning to discover "on their enclosed porch is a drunk Mexican."

Kmetz complained he often sees "10 to 12 bicycles" chained to a tree in his neighborhood, creating an eyesore.

"Their muster area across from the 7-Eleven, the place is a pigsty," Kmetz said. "Why can't it be moved to the edge of town or somewhere else?"

The muster area, at the corner of Broad Street and Maple Place, is well-known as a gathering spot for day laborers. Located on county-owned property, the odd-shaped parcel is occupied by two large billboards.

Merla said he could not fault the men for looking for work.

"My grandfather did the same thing when he first came to this country," Merla said, "shining shoes."

Kmetz disagreed.

"The difference between your grandfather and these people is these people have no allegiance," Kmetz said, adding, "because the first step they take is to break the law" by entering the United States illegally.

"The quality of life in that area of town is really going down because of all the Mexicans living on that street," Kmetz said. "My car has been vandalized twice because I had the audacity to go up to one of these punks and tell them to stop staring at my daughter."

Cooper, who runs the Keyport Food Pantry and is responsible for obtaining food stamps and other forms of aid for residents in financial distress, interrupted Kmetz.

"You're full of bull," Cooper said.

Kmetz then approached Cooper, who remained seated, and spoke angrily to him at close range. A few moments later, a police officer physically led Kmetz back to his chair.

"These so-called illegals," Cooper said later, "most of their money is going to support their family. We have a problem here. And the problem is we've lost ... compassion for our neighbors."

Cooper said it was next to impossible for a couple to make a $1,200 rent payment on "two Burger King jobs."

Resident Joanne Staeger agreed, saying the day laborers appear quite poor and in need of help.

"If you've ever seen these people, they're standing out there in the cold in a T-shirt and jeans," Staeger said. "They don't even have a coat."

Others were less forgiving, saying illegal immigrants should be deported for breaking the law, that is, entering the country illegally.

Local Latino leaders react

Local Latino leaders say the proposed housing law is immoral and would affect the economics and social well-being of Keyport.

"From a biblical perspective, I believe it's wrong," said the Rev. Franklin Guerrero, pastor of the Calvary United Methodist Church, Third and Osborn streets.

The Methodist church is also home to El Mesias, a Spanish-speaking congregation comprised of local Latinos.

"We benefit from immigrants more than immigrants benefit from us," Guerrero continued, adding, "If we run them out of town, some businesses will close down."

Reacting to the news after services on a Sunday morning, Guerrero compared the proposed law to the night of Jesus' birth. According to the Bible, the son of God was born in a manger because his parents were unable to find shelter at a crowded inn.

"What if they said there is an ordinance, you can only have certain animals in that stable?" Guerrero said. "He would have been evicted."

Guerrero, who was born in Puerto Rico to Dominican parents, said he understands there is a separation between church and state. Still, he warned the law would "not bring good relations to the town" because it would encourage "eavesdropping and monitoring."

"I become an intelligence agent for the city," Guerrero said, explaining that in order to enforce the proposed law, neighbors may begin spying on neighbors, using the law as a revenge mechanism.

"There should be a humanitarian effort, not a law enforcement," Guerrero said.

Juan Flores-Ponce is a volunteer missionary at El Mesias, recently working to revive the church's free lunch program, every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. He works closely with Keyport's Mexican immigrant population, describing an atmosphere of fear and isolation.

Flores-Ponce, a native of Peru, said he, too, understands that the laws of land need to be obeyed. He argued, however, that some laws violate the laws of Christianity.

"If the law is an expression of God, it is a good law," Flores-Ponce said.