Nearly 500 people gathered in front of the Riverside, N.J., town hall, for a prayer vigil Aug. 20, to voice their opposition to an ordinance that prohibits hiring and housing undocumented immigrants.

Under the city ordinance, the “Illegal Immigration Relief Act,” passed in July, employers who hire undocumented workers and landlords who rent to them will be fined up to $1,000 per violation and face possible cancellation of their licenses.

The vigil was organized by the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders. The Rev. Miguel Rivera, a Methodist minister who is president of the coalition, called the Riverside law “racist,” saying it was equivalent to flying the Confederate flag. “We pray that God will touch the hearts of township officials,” said Rivera.

Across the street, a counter-demonstration of similar size cheered as a Confederate flag with the motto “The South will rise again” was displayed on a pickup truck. The counter-demonstrators shouted, “Go home! Go home!” The immigrant rights supporters replied, “We are home!”

Tension has been growing in the town since Congress began debating immigration reform measures, some of them highly punitive. Riverside, located in western New Jersey not far from the Philadelphia-Camden metropolitan area, had a population of 8,000 in the 2000 Census. Mayor Charles Hilton Jr. says the town has 1,500 to 3,500 undocumented immigrants, most of them Brazilians. He justified the town anti-immigrant ordinance by saying, “They are overcrowding our schools, increasing crime and causing a financial burden because they do not pay taxes.”

However published statistics disprove the mayor’s conclusions. Crime has not increased nor has the increased number of students overcrowded classrooms. The town’s economy has actually improved because of the immigrant population.

Before the Illegal Immigration Relief Act was passed, many people spoke out against it at a town meeting of more than 700 residents. Renaldo Empke, a Brazilian who moved to Riverside two years ago, said, “The problem is discrimination. Riverside has historically been a town of immigrants. What is the problem? We can all work together to find solutions to any problem.”

David Verduin, representing the Coalition of Business Owners and Landlords, said the passage of the ordinance was a low point in Riverside’s history. “I haven’t seen hatred in faces like I did at that meeting of the small group that was pushing for the ordinance,” he said. “It was like Selma, Alabama, when people marched over the bridge.” Verduin said his group will hire a lawyer to fight the ordinance.

Franco Ordonez, a restaurant owner for four years, said, “Everyone in Riverside knows that immigrants revitalized this town. In 2000, Riverside, a former mill town, was nearly bankrupt with “For Sale” and “For Rent” signs everywhere. Immigrants brought back the economy. But since the ordinance passed, people are so fearful they won’t go anywhere. Business on this street is down 60 percent. We need to live in peace and look after our neighbors.”

On Aug. 15 the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders asked a federal court to overturn the ordinance. The coalition also filed a $10 million lawsuit against Riverside citing the irreparable harm the ordinance has caused residents. Many immigrant families have fled Riverside in the middle of the night fearing persecution or prosecution. Some were evicted without notice and had to leave their furniture and other belongings. “The harassment has been awful,” said one immigrant. People shout slurs at me on the street. My children were born here and I have legal working papers.”

The coalition’s lawyer, William Sanchez, said he sees the Riverside case as a test case. Regulating immigration is a federal government responsibility, and cities and municipalities cannot establish immigration policies, he said.