RIVERSIDE TOWNSHIP, N.J. – The main road into Riverside Township hugs the wide Rancocas Creek as it makes its final meander toward the Delaware River.

Past the cemetery, near where the two rivers meet, tight rows of century-old houses built for generations of millworkers give way to a one-stoplight downtown.

Schoolkids sip cups of Boost!, a syrupy flat cola invented here in the 1920s, as they stroll past vacant shops that share the street with stores like Foster’s Hardware, open since 1904. The ornate clock tower of the old watch case factory looms above it all, the clock still running, the windows boarded up.

For decades, it seemed the world had forgotten Riverside. Now, the whole country is watching.

Caught off guard by a sudden influx of immigrants, many of them illegal, the town became the first in New Jersey, and one of a handful across the nation, to pass a law imposing fines against employers or landlords who hire or rent homes to undocumented immigrants.

The new law, and a series of angry meetings and demonstrations that followed its passage on July 26, has made this blue-collar town one of the hottest flashpoints in the nationwide debate over illegal immigration. Riverside’s 15 police officers have not begun enforcing it. Still, it’s working.

Fearful of the impending crackdown, many immigrants have moved to Philadelphia or other towns. Across this mile-square Burlington County burg, apartments where immigrants once lived – often crammed in by the dozen – now sit vacant, with mattresses and furniture piled at the curb and “For Rent” signs taped to the windows.

Traffic flows freely down streets once clogged by the white vans immigrant workers used to travel to their construction jobs. On the blocks where residents once complained of groups of rowdy men, the sidewalks are empty and quiet.

But two months after the law was passed, the debate over how to deal with illegal immigrants has become a nasty battle over whether Riverside went too far.

Owners of downtown shops and restaurants say business has plummeted since the illegals began leaving. Landlords are desperately trying to find tenants to rent the growing number of vacant apartments.

The town faces a potentially costly federal lawsuit filed by a Latino immigrants rights group and the threat of another by a group that includes local business owners, landlords and the American Civil Liberties Union.

And in a place that prides itself on small-town neighborliness, there is suspicion and anger on both sides of the debate.

A protest last month by a Latino immigrants rights group was met by hundreds of mostly white counter-protesters, shouting “go home” and cheering the Confederate flag flown from the back of a pickup truck.

The protest and raucous public hearings on the ordinance have left even some legal immigrants looking to move out. Immigrants and U.S.-born residents both say they’re too afraid of each other to walk downtown after dark.

“Somebody sent the ordinance to me, I took a look at it and thought this might solve some of our problems,” said Charles Hilton, 60, the Republican mayor who is seeking re-election in November. “I didn’t know it would cause as many as it would solve.”

When Riverside was founded in the 1850s, there was no such thing as an illegal immigrant.

It would be three decades before Congress passed the first law restricting which foreigners could become Americans, and the new town boomed as Irish and Germans, and later Poles and Italians, came for jobs in factories cranking out watches, stockings and utensils.

In the late 1990s, a new wave of immigrants arrived, mostly from Brazil, with smaller numbers from Ecuador and Mexico – all countries where blue-collar immigrants find U.S. work visas nearly impossible to obtain.

Rents were cheap. And while factory jobs were scarce, construction jobs in the booming South Jersey suburbs were easy to come by.

In many ways, Riverside is typical of the towns and regions across the U.S. where residents and politicians are sounding the call for tougher immigration enforcement. For decades after the Depression, they saw few immigrants, but now feel besieged as immigration patterns shift away from traditional immigrant-heavy cities and states.

Riverside officials estimate about 2,000 to 3,000 have arrived in the past five years.

Most live with family members in small groups. But many, especially young single men, cram into houses by the dozen to save money.

Stymied by New Jersey’s tough motor vehicle laws, many illegals take to the roads with a patchwork of papers from other states: licenses from North Carolina or Florida, tags from Pennsylvania.

Many residents say they are unnerved that the town they knew so well suddenly has become home to so many strangers, speaking a language they don’t understand.

“Our township is getting destroyed,” says Sonny Reid, 67, peering out of the doorway of Donovan’s Automotive. “They took over. They have their own bank, their own variety stores, everything.”

But many say the immigrants provided the first spark of life the downtown has seen since stores like Woolworth’s and W.T. Grant Co. fled decades ago. Seabra’s, a Newark-based Portuguese supermarket, took over the old Foodtown. Franco Ordonez, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Ecuador, spent $100,000 to gut an old storefront and open the bustling Chicken King restaurant.

Then came new Brazilian clothing shops and money transfer businesses. Two new restaurants are also set to open.

“Eleven years ago, it was nothing, this town,” said Jose Victor, a Portuguese immigrant and owner of Victor’s Supermarket, which specializes in fresh meats and produce popular with Brazilians. “These guys spend money.”

Like many longtime residents, Hilton, a former engineer for an aircraft parts company and now an administrative analyst for the Burlington County Department of Economic Development, dismisses the argument that immigrant-run businesses have helped revive the town’s economy.

“Nobody goes in there but the immigrants,” he said, referring to Victor’s. “They used to have products that regular people wanted. Now they just serve their own.”

The five-member township committee had been hearing complaints of overcrowded houses for several years. But when a house burned down and firefighters pulled out 20 mattresses this past spring, Hilton said he realized drastic action was needed.

“Something had to be done before a dozen bodies were found huddled in a basement or an attic,” he said.

The town already had laws and codes on the books prohibiting the renting of apartments to large numbers of people. But with just two part-time code enforcement officers and a small police department, officials said conducting hundreds of inspections would have been too costly.

The immigration ordinance “makes it easier for us to make people who are abusing the immigration situation think twice,” said township Committeeman Marcus Carroll, who voted in favor of the measure.

“We’re not after the immigrant,” he added. “We’re after the industry, the people who take advantage of them, the landlords and the people who hire them.”

The Riverside law was essentially copied from one passed on July 13 in Hazleton, Pa., which had attracted national attention. Riverside’s law imposes a maximum $2,000 fine for any landlord who knowingly rents to an illegal immigrant. Business owners who hire illegals face the same fine and the loss of their license.

The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Newark to block it, arguing that only the federal government has the right to enforce immigration law. The ACLU last week sent a letter threatening a lawsuit if the ordinance is not rescinded.

Enforcement will be tricky, some say, or even impossible.

Police and code enforcement officers may need to be trained to recognize the more than 40 different types of documents proving a person is legally in the country. Some people legally in the country have no proof at all, most notably those facing sometimes long waits to receive their documents in the mail.

Hilton and other officials concede they are not sure how they’ll enforce the law, or whose job it will be.

“We’re working out the bugs,” said Police Chief Paul Tursi.

In the interim, a mass exodus has taken place.

Two months ago, the roster of tenants in John Lee’s five rental properties included three Mexican families and one group of Brazilians. Those apartments are empty now, and Lee says the tenants moved to Philadelphia in the weeks after the new law was passed.

On a recent Thursday, Lee stood in the driveway of one of his properties, shouting over the roar of a flatbed truck as salvage driver Richard Argenti hitched up the Ford Escort wagon the Brazilians had left behind.

“The exodus is insane,” said Argenti, who also owns a rental property that was vacated by immigrants. “People just left their lives in the trash.”

Lee worries the large number of vacancies will cause rents to drop even as property taxes rise.

Business owners also say they’re hurting, with many saying they’ve lost a third to half of their customers.

Dave Ercolani, owner of 102-year-old Foster’s Hardware, said the disappearance of his immigrant customers erased any doubts he had over his decision to close the store and retire at the end of September.

Don’t tell Rose Rendfrey the law is hurting Riverside.

The 79-year-old grandmother said she has often spent late nights driving around with her daughter, jotting down the license plate numbers of Pennsylvania-registered vans parked overnight on the streets near her home.

She sent the information to the police and the U.S. Department of Justice, hoping someone would arrest the illegal immigrants she believed owned the vans.

“We turned in 1,002 tags,” she said. “Everyone just pushed us on to someone else.”

Residents like Rendfrey praise the new law, and they bristle at charges of racism levied by its opponents.

Again and again, at council meetings, in street-corner interviews and on their living room couches, they utter the same mantra: They’re not against immigrants, just the illegal ones.

But too often, legal immigrants say, their U.S.-born neighbors can’t tell the difference.

At a packed town council hearing on the immigration ordinance, several legal immigrants who spoke were jeered and heckled. The crowd cheered loudly when one speaker referred to the Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza as a “violent racist organization” with ties to terrorists.

Kelly Pinto, 24, a Brazilian immigrant who holds a legal work permit and is awaiting her green card, said that on the day of the protest downtown, local youths confronted her in front of her house, yelling, “Go back, go back, you don’t pay taxes.”

“I go to work at 6 in the morning and come home at 8,” said Pinto, who cleans houses for a living. “I pay taxes. What are they talking about?”

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Pinto has had the rearview mirrors of her car smashed twice in recent weeks, and believes she was targeted because of her nationality. She is determined not to leave Riverside, saying she hopes to raise a family here.

But the incidents have made her deeply suspicious.

“Did you interview my neighbors?” she asks a reporter, her voice softening to a whisper. “What do they say about us?”

As she speaks, Pinto stands before a barbecue grill in the alley behind the apartment she shares with her husband and several other immigrants, some of them illegal.

Among them is Haroldo, 23, an illegal immigrant who learned to speak English while working for two years at a TGI Friday’s restaurant in Westampton, N.J.

Since the day of the rally, he has steered clear of the downtown after dark, fearful of the groups of youths who have heckled him and his fellow immigrants.

“I’m afraid to walk in the streets,” he said.

Seated in his living room across the street, Robert Wilson, says he, too, is afraid of going downtown. What he fears is illegals like Haroldo.

“I won’t even walk downtown,” Wilson said. “Hell no, not at night. Hell no.”

Brian Donohue covers immigration issues for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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