Tensions rising for Norristown's Latinos

Hank Cisco and his wife, Dolores , on the porch of their Norristown home. He says bigotry he experienced as the son of immigrants has made him sympathetic to the newest arrivals. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Hank Cisco and his wife, Dolores , on the porch of their Norristown home. He says bigotry he experienced as the son of immigrants has made him sympathetic to the newest arrivals. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 12, 2012

Maybe it was the broken bumper on Isaac Reyes' 2000 Mitsubishi that caught the eye of Norristown police. Maybe it was when he rolled through a yellow light as it changed to red.

Either way, the 25-year-old tattoo artist with a silver ring in his nose and ball studs in his brow was pulled over a year ago. Lacking both license and registration, he showed his Honduran passport. The officer shook her head, wrote him up, and made a telephone call, said Reyes. Her partner stayed with him and seemed sympathetic.

"I am sorry, my friend, I know you," the patrolman said, according to Reyes. "But she already called Immigration. There is nothing I can do."

So began the process to deport Reyes, an illegal immigrant who came to America eight years ago after riding across Mexico on the tops of trains. He lived in Virginia, moved to Norristown in 2007, and opened his shop, Iron Tattoo, two years later. At the moment he is free, fighting his expulsion in court.

"A lot of people have moved from Norristown," Reyes said. "Police are too hard here."

Vehicle stops that lead to deportations are a common fear for some immigrants in Norristown, the Montgomery County seat, where the Latino population has tripled since 2000.

Home to Irish, Italians, and other immigrants throughout its 200-year history, the municipality has undergone a profound ethnic shift in the last decade, accelerating the emergence of its West Marshall Street neighborhood as a mecca for Spanish-speakers.

The evolution has included some controversy.

In September, Juntos, a Latino advocacy group in Philadelphia, came to Norristown for a public meeting. The group alleged police harassment of Latinos in the borough, including restaurant raids and car checkpoints.

In October, a group of Hispanic business leaders held a news conference to challenge the Juntos assessment. Interviewed on the sidelines of that meeting, Norristown Police Chief Russell Bono said state police administer the checkpoints and turn over violators to Norristown officers, who write the citations. Of four such checkpoints in the last year, said Bono, two were attended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. On those occasions, the people cited for traffic infractions were turned over to ICE for immigration-status checks.

"That's for everyone," said Bono, "not just Latinos."

Colombian immigrant Isabel Hernandez, 26, a cashier at El Gallito, a relatively secluded Norristown bodega festooned with phone cards and piƱatas, sees both sides. For security, the door is always locked and customers are buzzed in.

"I am happy when I see police" patrolling, said Hernandez, who came to the United States with her parents as a toddler, grew up in Reading, and moved to Norristown last spring. At the same time, she said, it seems unfair that police round up otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants if they stumble upon them while searching for a wanted person.

When a town becomes a destination for new immigrants, some friction is predictable, said University of Pennsylvania professor of ethnography Stanton Wortham, an expert on Mexico's diaspora whose field research includes Norristown.

"The formula in most receiving towns is that 20 percent of the residents welcome [immigrants] with open arms," said Wortham, "20 percent think they should all be deported immediately, and 60 percent are on the fence."

At its height in the 1940s, Norristown's population was about 38,000 and predominantly Irish. In the years that followed, Italians arrived, as did more African Americans, Eastern Europeans, Southeast Asians, and Puerto Ricans.

The surge of Mexicans and Central Americans - many of whom are illegal immigrants - is the latest transformation. Blacks, Asians, and Latinos made up two-thirds of the 34,324 residents counted in the 2010 census. The Latino population jumped from 10.5 percent in 2000 to 28.3 percent in 2010.

"My sense of Norristown," said Wortham, "is that it is a little bit more toward the welcoming side" because of its immigrant history. "There are still a lot of people who remember what it was like to be an immigrant."

One is Hank Cisco, 88, whose parents came from Sicily a century ago. After living briefly in New York's Brooklyn borough, the family settled in Norristown, where Cisco's father was a shoemaker.

Today Cisco is one of the town's most colorful characters. He was a boxer and "stablemate" of Rocky Marciano's, a police officer on the Norristown force for 24 years, and a pallbearer for Frank L. Rizzo. He hosts a weekly cable-access show about Norristown goings-on.

Despite the passage of time, Cisco still remembers the sting of bigotry he experienced growing up.

"I was called all sorts of names. Dago. Wop. Spaghetti bender," he said. "We were the bottom of the totem pole."

Such experiences, he said, left him empathic to Norristown's newest immigrants.

"There is no reason to say all the Mexicans here are no good. No way," he said. "I like diversity. I don't want to go to a town where they're all blue-eyed with blond hair."

Nobody in Ernesto Cruz-Garcia's family would fit that bill - not his wife, Joanna Castanon; daughter, Daniela, 13; or sons, Ernesto Jr., 12, and Brandon, 9. All are illegal immigrants from Mexico. Cruz-Garcia works in construction. Castanon babysits for cash.

Interviewed recently, family members said they were scared when six marked and unmarked police vehicles rolled up to their rented house on the evening of March 22. The police came, said Castanon, with guns drawn.

Because the parents are not proficient in English, Daniela translated. Through tears she admitted the family is undocumented. When officers handcuffed Ernesto Sr. to take him away, his youngest son fainted.

The family says no one told them why he was arrested.

After spending the night in a cell at the Norristown police station, Cruz-Garcia was transferred to Montgomery County Jail in Eagleville and then to a lockup at the ICE office in Philadelphia, where he was photographed, fingerprinted, and processed for deportation. He said that was when agents told him that unnamed complainants had accused him of dealing drugs, running guns and prostitutes, and being a member of the Zetas, a Mexican gang, all of which Cruz-Garcia denied.

That evening agents attached an electronic monitoring bracelet to his ankle, released him without requiring bail, told him he could keep going to work, and ordered him to check in regularly with the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program.

The arrest shocked Margarita Contreras, director of social services at Accion Comunal Latino Americana de Montgomery County, a Norristown family-support center known as ACLAMO.

"I have known them for a long time," Contreras said. "I used to teach parenting at a school. This family was always there."

The family thinks Cruz-Garcia may have been falsely accused by a neighbor with whom they had a long-running dispute about a laptop he was paid to fix but never did.

Sigang Li, the immigration lawyer Castanon hired to try to prevent her husband's expulsion, said no criminal charges were filed in the matter, which leads him to think police "had the wrong guy."

But the mere fact of Cruz-Garcia's arrest is enough to sink him, said Li, because it triggered an immigration-status check.

On Thursday, at immigration court in Philadelphia, Cruz-Garcia told Judge Steven Morley he intends to fight his deportation. A hearing is scheduled April 18.

Contact Michael Matza

at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.

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