The New York Times

August 2, 2005

Volleyball and Violations: Immigrants' Pastime Is Out of Bounds in Danbury


DANBURY, Conn., July 28 - Six weeks after more than 1,000 immigrants marched down Main Street to demand respect from the mayor, he is taking steps to stop their sometimes raucous volleyball games, which officials say are occasions for illegal enterprise.

The evening games, a passion among Danbury's growing population of Ecuadorean immigrants, sometimes draw more than 100 people to backyards in otherwise quiet residential neighborhoods. After a nighttime sweep by code enforcement officers on July 23, city workers issued cease-and-desist orders for seven properties.

"What we shut down was seven illegal businesses that happened to have volleyball as their draw for selling food and alcohol," Sean P. Hearty, the city's permit officer, said of the backyard games.

Mr. Hearty and other city officials said they also found overcrowded apartments, cars parked illegally on neighboring yards and fire and building code violations, including nets rising more than 20 feet over backyard fences - to keep the volleyball in the yard - and extension cords buried below ground to power lights for night games.

While the sweeps that Saturday night were a first, they reflected persistent tension in a city that has become a battleground in the national debate over illegal immigration in smaller cities and suburbs.

In April, Mayor Mark D. Boughton asked the state to seek federal permission to deputize state police officers to enforce federal immigration laws in the city. On June 12, a coalition of Ecuadorean immigrants led a mile-long march on a stretch of Main Street whose storefronts, once empty, have been transformed with new Hispanic and Brazilian businesses.

The goal, march organizers said, was to demand respect for the way immigrants have helped revitalize the downtown area. Many immigrant workers live in the city, often in houses that have been converted into apartments, and work during the day in construction jobs in the suburbs of Fairfield County.

The week before the march, Leonard C. Boyle, commissioner of the State Department of Public Safety, denied the mayor's request to deputize the state police, saying the city and state had other means of enforcement.

Even before Mr. Boyle rejected the request, Mayor Boughton said the city would find other ways to deal with overcrowded housing, day laborers looking for work in the streets and, in particular, the volleyball games that spill across neighborhoods and draw complaints.

Critics, including some marchers, have said Mr. Boughton is biased against immigrants and using the issue for political gain. In an interview on Thursday at City Hall, the mayor, a Republican who announced his candidacy for a third term on July 25, rejected the claims and said he wanted to make sure "the issue doesn't get driven down to a racial issue."

As he has in the past, he blamed a "failed federal policy" that leaves local officials with few tools to deal with the pressures of immigration at the neighborhood level. Mr. Boughton said he had spoken with officials in other states, including California and New York, and that he hoped to create a coalition of mayors who would work toward immigration reform.

For now, Danbury has responded with stricter code enforcement.

The city's Common Council is considering adopting an ordinance that would give the police greater power to control "repetitive outdoor activities."

The mayor said the volleyball sweeps were "an interim measure" conducted by a new unified neighborhood inspection team he had formed.

Working with Danbury police officers, the team, which includes enforcement officers from the city's fire, building, zoning and health and housing divisions, cited seven private homes and apartment houses. City officials said they visited properties during the games, identified themselves, asked homeowners if they could enter the properties, then spoke casually with people who, for example, told them they had paid 50 cents for a beer and $5 for a plate of chicken or pork.

"We're not targeting a certain demographic," said Timothy J. Bunting, the assistant zoning enforcement officer. "We're targeting problem areas."

Mr. Hearty, the permit officer, said no arrests were made, nor were fines issued. City officials have said in the past that backyard volleyball games have involved gambling and drugs, though no such activities were cited in the recent sweep.

"Our whole thing was, 'Did you realize this was a violation?' " Mr. Hearty said. "They were so misinformed that they came in the next day and asked me for an alcohol license."

One property cited belongs to Efrain Romero, an Ecuadorean immigrant who works in pool construction during the day. In the evening, his large lot is often filled with young men drinking beer and playing volleyball on two courts, with nets and balls ordered from Ecuador.

In an interview in May, Mr. Romero said most of the men were probably illegal immigrants, but that he was legal. He said his house was divided into four apartment units and that he had done some of the construction himself.

On July 23, the city cited him for "change of site plan without approval," for having an unregistered truck stored illegally, for having fencing that is too high and for selling food and liquor on the property during volleyball games.

In a telephone interview after the sweep, Mr. Romero said he told a city official he was not selling food or alcohol.

"He said I can play volleyball a little bit, but don't make it too noisy and don't sell any stuff," he said. "I told him I used to sell juice. We're not going to do it no more."

His next-door neighbor, Richard Erhardt, said he was relieved that the city had cited the property.

Mr. Erhardt, who is 71 and lives with his ailing wife, said that they have not sat on their sun porch in three years because of the volleyball games and that the balls often bounced against their house.

"If it snows this deep, they shovel off the snow and they're out there playing volleyball," he said. "Rain, thunder and lightning, they're playing volleyball - until this weekend."