For the town of East Haven, 2012 was a year of identity confusion and controversy. Federal authorities arrested four police officers accused of racial profiling and mistreating Latinos during traffic stops. That was followed by controversial remarks by Mayor Joe Maturo, who answered a reporters’ question about what he would do for the Latino community by saying, “I might go home and have tacos.” That, in turn, was followed by a pro-immigrant march.

In a time of divisiveness, East Haven attorney Michael Albis has been a unifying force. He and his wife have created a college scholarship fund for Latino students in hopes that it is one step toward helping counter-act the town’s anti-Latino reputation. The newly established East Haven Unity Fund will provide scholarships to deserving Latino seniors who graduate from East Haven High School — which Albis attended and where his wife, Jacqueline, teaches.

“The town as a whole was being painted [as] a place that was prejudiced,” said Albis, whose practice focuses on real estate, probate and general law. “My wife and I both grew up here. We have lived and worked here and we know thousands of good people here who are not prejudiced. It’s not fair to have them characterized by the news events.”

Michael and Jacqueline Albis want to send out the word that the town is welcoming to the Latino community. And they want to unify the people of East Haven and relieve tension by celebrating outstanding students.

“Something needed to be done to show the Latino community that they are welcome here,” Albis said. “We thought a scholarship would be a non-political way of doing both things — extending a welcoming hand to the Latinos and give residents in town to show that they join in that welcome.”

Earlier this year, Jacqueline Albis told the New Haven Register: “As an English teacher, I often stress to my students the power of words. But in this case, we hope the power of action in the form of this scholarship will, at least in a small way, help to promote a sense of community.”

Albis’ legal practice is based in town, and the issues at hand were certainly on the minds of his clients. Albis said he knew he needed to “do something in a positive way” after having conversations with fellow community members who “were unhappy with being characterized as if they condoned what the police did or what the mayor said.”

The Albises established the fund with a $1,000 initial contribution that they hoped would set off a domino effect. It has. From the day the scholarship was announced this past spring, it has become a magnet for those upset by the community’s reputation of intolerance.

“We didn’t even have to ask people for [donations],” said Albis. “I literally had people walk up to me on the street and hand me a check for the fund, which was very heartwarming. As I would bump into them, they would tell me they were happy to have a way to show they welcome the Latino community here. It was gratifying to receive all of those donations and notes of support that came with them.

So, we didn’t really do any formal fundraising. It just sort of happened.”

East Haven High School holds an annual awards ceremony where local groups and organizations give modest scholarships to graduating seniors, anywhere from a couple hundred dollars up to $1,000. This year’s ceremony in June was the first for the East Haven Unity Fund.

“Students who received our first scholarships were warmly received by the audience,” said Albis. “It was gratifying for us and the recipients to receive all of the donations and notes of support that came with them.”

After the money was handed out, the Albises’ son and state Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, contacted Gov. Dannel Malloy’s office and arranged for the two recipients to visit the state capitol and meet with and be congratulated by the governor. “It was really nice to see the students be recognized in that way,” Albis said.

East Haven is proceeding with police reforms, as outlined in a consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and the East Haven Police Department. Albis may have no direct involvement with the legal proceedings, but as a member of the East Haven Democratic Town Committee, he has taken note of improvements.

“I think the Latino community has felt more comfortable standing up and taking part of community events,” said Albis. “I have seen more Latinos at political events in the past year than ever before — and I think that’s a raw shoot of them being able to feel more welcome and that they have just as much right to participate in affairs as anyone else.”

But even though the tension is slowly subsiding, the East Haven Unity Fund will live on. For year two, Albis said he, he and his wife and the fund’s other trustees will engage “more formally” in fundraising, to make sure the good will is extended into the future.

“It is a long process,” said Albis, “but I hope that we have made some small step to head things in the right direction.”•