December 27, 2006

Debate Over Immigration Heats Up

The clash between locals and illegal immigrants has been festering for a long time. Only The Independent took the time to examine the issue from both sides, up front and personal. This is one of our stories.

Last Friday outside the 7-Eleven in Southampton, the signs read "No papers, no work," "No More Holes Under The Fence," "Don't Sell Us Out." The men who carried them were all contractors who say they can no longer compete against contractors who hire illegal immigrants.

On Sunday at Red Creek Park in Hampton Bays, immigrants, both legal and illegal, expressed worries about being detained by immigration authorities, and wondered whether they should participate in The Day Without Immigrants the next day, a protest designed to show the importance of immigrant workers in the United States, even if it meant risking their jobs.

"We hope that the situation will improve because definitely, we're being treated very badly right now. We're not criminals; we came only to work. We are not harming anyone," said Acuzena, an illegal immigrant from Ecuador who lives in Sag Harbor. She, like other immigrants who were interviewed, declined to give her last name.

On Monday the streets near the 7-Eleven, traditionally a gathering place for day laborers seeking work, were nearly empty, and a small group of anti-illegal immigration protesters had returned. In a group of six Hispanic men standing down the block, one man, an illegal immigrant from the Chiapas region of Mexico who preferred to remain anonymous, said that he thought that people stayed away in part to support The Day Without Immigrants and in part out of fear about being detained. Another, Miguel, an undocumented worker from Ecuador, said that while he supported the idea of The Day Without Immigrants, "We are thinking of working because we have to pay a lot of bills, for food, for rent."

At a small demonstration at the traffic circle in Riverhead on Monday, a Hispanic man wrapped himself in an American flag while another held a up a sign that read, "Would you do what we do?"

And so it went across the East End last week. While Congress struggles to come to terms with an immigration bill meant to deal with the status of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, on the East End the fissures caused by the increasingly rancorous debate are beginning to show. At a Town Hall meeting in Amagansett on April 19, Congressman Tim Bishop fielded many questions about what Congress planned to do about immigration, with the majority demanding tougher measures to curb illegal immigration.

Amongst immigrant groups, rumors have run rampant over the past two weeks that agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement were picking up undocumented workers at sites across the East End. Mark Thorne, spokesman for the New York office ICE, denied the rumors, saying, "We have not, are not and will not conduct random sweeps."

Sister Margaret Smyth, the director of The North Fork Spanish Apostolate, said that the current immigration situation had "many layers without easy resolutions."

For the group of approximately 20 construction workers and contractors who gathered to protest against the government's immigration policies and against illegal immigration at the 7-Eleven, the situation was as simple as legal and illegal. "There is a process in place that they [prospective immigrants] have to go through to get into this country. Get in line," said Tom Wedell, a contractor who owns a small home improvement business and organized the protest.

Wedell said that he believed all illegal immigrants should be deported. "I'm tired of the illegal immigrants getting all the jobs and we're getting nothing out of the deal," he added.

Mario, a U.S. citizen who is the son of Mexican immigrants, believed that neither criminalization of illegal immigration nor deportation were the answer. "They should legalize everybody, and have them pay taxes. They're here anyway and they're going to be here anyway," he said. "No matter how hard it is for someone to come here, they do it. It would be easier to have them pay."

A resident of Hampton Bays who works as a chef in Westhampton, Mario said that he had mixed feelings about The Day Without Immigrants. "For me it's tough. I come from a family of immigrants. I'm a little divided. This country, my country, it has given everything. It's tough for me to decide," he said.

Klaver, an illegal immigrant from Ecuador who has lived in Flanders for the past three years, said on Sunday that he thought The Day Without Immigrants would help resolve the limbo of illegality. "There are a lot of people that have been here for 15 or 20 years and don't have papers, who are working with the fear that perhaps that they might be stopped by immigration and sent back to their countries," he said. "It's good to do this to see if things can be fixed for all immigrants."

Nationally, there is no clear consensus about the immigration issue. Proposals in the immigration bills that are currently stalled before Congress range from putting most illegal immigrants on the path to legalization and citizenship to tightening border security and making it a felony to enter the country illegally.

A poll released by Time Magazine in March found 79% of Americans favor a guest worker program while a similar percentage (78%) said that illegal immigrants currently in the country should be allowed a chance at citizenship if they learned English, had a job and paid taxes. Forty-seven percent favored deporting all illegal immigrants. Seventy-one percent said they favored having and enforcing penalties against employers who hired illegal immigrants.

Employers who hire illegal immigrants were among the sore points for the protestors gathered at the 7-Eleven. Wedell said that such contractors who avoid paying the required taxes and insurance "have the advantage. They hire these guys, they don't pay [worker's] comp and liability on them; they don't pay any taxes on them. How can I compete with somebody that does that?"

"Any contractor that hires someone without a Social Security Number should have to pay a steep fine," said George Overbeck, a contractor from Westhampton who attended the protest.

Of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, 7.2 million have jobs, accounting for 4.9% of the national work force, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. They account for 24% of all workers employed in farming occupations, 17% in cleaning, 14% in construction and 12% in food preparation.

While both sides of the debate await Congressional action on the issue, Tom Wedell said that he would continue his protests "until somebody solves the problem or reacts to it anyhow."

But Acuzena from Ecuador, who has lived in the U.S. for 10 years, hopes that she will soon be on the path to citizenship. "Like everyone in the world, we want to achieve the American dream," she said.

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