September 13, 2006

Levy's Immigration Plan God Wouldn't Like It, Clergy Says

It's not often Scripture interpretation comes up around the horseshoe at the Suffolk County Legislature. But last week, as the public hearing on County Executive Steve Levy's immigration legislation continued, some lawmakers rebuked members of the clergy who implied the plan contradicts Christian teachings of inclusion and offering succor to those in need.

Pastor Roseann Vita of Incarnation Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton offered a statement on behalf of the organization East End Clergy Concerned. She spoke of the danger of language and the way lawmakers cadge terms. "If you call someone vermin, it leads to extermination," she said. Legislator Joe Caracappa (R., Selden), one of the cosponsors of Levy's bill interrupted her. "It's getting really tiresome," he said, offering that those who condemn supporters of the law as racist and xenophobic are not being "fair." Each side of the question should be tolerant of the other, he chastised.

Inflamed rhetoric and heated debate spills into acts detrimental to the community, Ronald Richardson, pastor of Queen of the Rosary Church in Bridgehampton warned. Relating that he works with a community of Latinos, he lauded their dedication to family, faith and work. Love the alien as yourself, Reverend Richard Edwards of Stony Brook said, continuing the theme. "Jesus didn't say, 'When I was hungry and passed thru all the INS hoops, you fed me,'" he asserted. "It is incumbent on us to insist that our laws reflect the hospitality that our hearts would extend."

Legislators Jack Eddington (D. Patchogue) and Cameron Alden (R. Islip) apparently took exception to the use of scripture to justify opposition. Eddington referenced the Ten Commandments, relating the divine directive regarding theft to undocumented workers who don't pay taxes. Alden quoted "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's," depicting the statement as Jesus' support of paying taxes.

A great deal of workers do pay taxes, Edwards replied, sparking more commentary from Caracappa. Offering that religious beliefs divide people, he asked the pastor what he thought was the equalizing force in the world.

"We are all creatures of one God," the Reverend replied.

Caracappa asserted, "I was taught we are all equal under the law." The law, he said is "the only thing that keeps us equal."

"Stop blaming the victims," Reverend Charles Coverdale of the First Baptist Church of Riverhead urged. "In looking for a solution, you're making things worse," he said. Because Suffolk County has declared "open season" on undocumented workers, they won't come forward when they are underpaid or injured or exploited by unscrupulous contractors. Levy's legislation "stirs up the worst in our community, but doesn't stop sweat shop contractors," Reverend Coverdale concluded.

Running a full three hours, last week's hearing was a continuation of an earlier outing in August. Outside the spiritual twist brought to the podium by clergy, testimony reiterated many of the arguments raised at the first iteration of the hearing.

If adopted, the law would require any contractor doing business with Suffolk County to verify the immigration status of his employees. Opponents have argued that the law is pre-empted by federal statutes, and failed to ensure against discrimination. During this go-round, Chief Deputy County Executive Paul Sabatino reported that additional anti-discrimination verbiage has been added to the bill, reflecting language similar to the federal mandates already in place.

Additionally he noted that the Suffolk County charter already speaks to discrimination. If the proposal were adopted, there would be "double barrel" protection he assured.

Lawmakers Ed Romaine (R. Riverhead) and John Kennedy (R. Nesconset) questioned Sabatino about how the plan would work and whether it was indeed pre-empted by federal law. To the latter, Sabatino noted that Suffolk County has a long history of landmark legislation used to "push and prod" other levels of government to try to solve the problem. As to how the plan would be implemented, he offered no specifics. Staff might be redeployed within the labor department, but overall, he said, "the laws in this country are self enforcing."

If that's true, Legislator Vivian Viloria Fisher (D., East Setauket) said, why aren't the federal statues already in place self-enforcing? Viloria-Fisher, one of only two legislators who have expressed outright opposition to the measure asserted, "This law is duplicative, unenforceable and actually meaningless."

Legislator Ricardo Montano (D., Central Islip) has also voiced reservations about the concept. He questioned Sabatino about how the anti discrimination provisions would be implemented. If workers are discriminated against, "what is their remedy?" he asked Sabatino repeatedly. Sabatino replied that penalties could be levied against companies that engage in discrimination with barring from future business with the county the ultimate punishment. Montano did not seem satisfied by his answers.

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