Crowd questions Springfield leaders on immigration issues after bus crash

City officials work to ease tensions and offer answers surrounding fast-growing Haitian population.

Dozens of residents pushed Springfield city leaders for answers about the burgeoning immigrant population in the aftermath of a school bus accident that killed an 11-year-old boy and resulted in felony charges against a Haitian immigrant driver.

More than 50 people attended the Springfield City Commission meeting Tuesday night, many upset, and city officials sought to answer questions and tone down rhetoric. A small group carried signs about immigration and protested outside City Hall before the meeting.

“Emotions are high, even mine,” Assistant Mayor Rob Rue said to the first of more than 20 speakers who addressed commissioners. “There are things we’ve seen buzzed around Facebook that are not true, and we need to clear those up so we can address some of your questions.”

Rue, whose Littleton & Rue Funeral Home handled services for Aiden Clark, the Northwestern student killed in the Aug. 22 crash, added: “There’s not one person up at this podium who wants to see a kid get killed again. Not one. It was terrible.”

Thousands of Haitian immigrants have come to Springfield, many in the last five years. Estimates have widely varied, from 5,000 immigrants to as many as 10,000.

Conversations on social media after the school bus accident sparked residents to confront city officials to ask if Springfield is a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants.

“We are not officially declared a sanctuary city,” City Manager Bryan Heck said. “That is where legislation is passed that says we will not act as it relates to immigration law … We have never passed any legislation that says that.”

He said immigrants are allowed into the country under a federal program extending “humanitarian parole” for foreign nationals forced to flee their homelands.

“So when other countries are in crisis, the federal government — not the state, not the local government; it is federal government — allows immigrants into our country,” Heck said. “It is a federally legislated program.”

Rue said immigrants have come to Springfield to work: “Because there are jobs available within an hour and a half drive of our community. That’s one of the reasons.”

Opponents have said the city is receiving compensation for the immigrant population here, which the city rebutted.

“We have not received any state or federal dollars for any immigrant who has come into our community,” Heck said.

Commissioners struggled at times to maintain order as residents shouted questions or comments, leading Mayor Warren Copeland to repeatedly ask those in attendance to register and be recognized to speak.

Springfield Police Chief Allison Elliott asked residents to be respectful so everyone could be heard and speak to the concerns they have.

“You can be passionate, you can be upset, you can be angry,” she said, “but you can also get your voice heard appropriately, so please be mindful of that as we sit here this evening.”

In response to one speaker’s allegation that the immigrant population is responsible for an increase in crime locally, Elliott indicated crime is not a just an issue within the Haitian community.

“When you speak about crime and issues with retail theft, that has been going on here, and we have been struggling with that for the last several years,” she said.

Officials previously have noted Haitians have been the victims of crimes here, too.

Residents also expressed concerns about driver safety among the immigrant population. Rue said state law makes it easy to get a driver’s license after the age of 18, with no driver’s education required, and conversations are underway with state legislators about the problems that is posing in local communities.

Officials agreed with resident Casey Tingley, who suggested that law enforcement locally is “stretched thin,” and additional police officers would be helpful in addressing concerns about immigrant drivers who are unfamiliar with traffic laws.

Heck noted 19 current vacancies for police officers the city is seeking to fill. The application process remains open until Sept. 10. Residents were asked to encourage candidates to apply and help fill those gaps.

Officials also agreed to look further into questions raised by Maiden Lane resident Tony Hilliard, who asked officials to investigate staffing services and companies who may be involved in busing immigrants into the area to fill job vacancies.

Rocking Horse Community Health Center board member Victoria Sorg cited data and said non-profits are struggling to meet the needs of immigrants.

Data from 2018 showed only three Creole-speaking pediatric patients received services from Rocking Horse over the entire year. In 2022, more than 400 Haitian pediatric patients received care.

One of the major costs to Rocking Horse and other non-profit organizations serving immigrants is translation costs, Sorg said.

“In 2018 the cost of translation services for Rocking Horse was a total of $4,000. Those costs so far this year are $344,000,” she said. “That increase is not sustainable for the nonprofits in the area.”

She asked if the city could do anything to support local nonprofits.

“If this is happening to Rocking Horse, it’s probably happening to the food bank, churches, to others. We have a mission in these organizations to serve the most vulnerable,” Sorg said, “but we need help.”

Several agencies meet monthly to coordinate resources and address needs regarding the Haitian community in Clark County.

Groups including city government helped celebrate Haitian Flag Day in May, an important holiday for the people of Haiti.

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