With recent on the growing Hispanic population on the East End boosting tension over illegal immigration, local officials and activists are working on solutions to an issue that is clouded with anger, misinformation and heartbreak.
"It is long past time for comprehensive immigration reform with increased enforcement of our borders, a crackdown on crimes committed by those in the country illegally, and an earned path to legal status for those who are ready to be responsible members of our communities," Rep. Tim Bishop, D-NY, said. "Misrepresenting reform as amnesty only perpetuates the unsustainable status quo, which is a de facto amnesty."
Bishop has long espoused a path to legal status for, not deportation of, the scores of illegal immigrants who have families in the United States — and without whom, many claim, the local agricultural community would be crippled.
“Without a long-term resolution on immigration reform and a guest worker program, it places Long Island agriculture in a perilous situation,” Joseph Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said. “Farmers, vineyards, tourism, hospitality and building trades all depend upon an available work force, and they would like it to be a legal workforce. This issue affects our entire East End economy.”
Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley was at the center of controversy in recent years over a proposed hiring site on a parcel of land on Aldrich Lane, which was purchased with Community Preservation Funds. At the time, Epley said a hiring site would be a way to organize the day laborers who dot the village landscape, seeking work while providing a humanitarian approach to a problem that ties the hands of local officials who cannot effect long-term solutions.
“Nothing is going to change until the federal government defines an immigration policy,” Epley said, adding that letters come in from “people that are angry.”
The letters, he said, are “reflective of a failed immigration system.”
“The system we have today does not work. We need changes, and true leadership out of Washington D.C.” he said.
The heart of the issue, Epley said, lies in temporary work visas that allow individuals to travel back and forth from the United States to their own countries.
“The pathway to citizenship already exists,” he said. “They don’t need citizenship. They just need work visas.”
Most immigrants who seek work in the United States, Epley said, would like to be able to travel and see their families. Epley further stated that the services provided by day laborers are critical.
“They’re doing jobs that, for the most part, the average American doesn’t want to do,” he said.
Immigration is not a new issue, he said. “If you go back and look at our history, 100 years ago it was the Irish standing on the docks waiting to be picked up.”
But, he said, “It’s time for us to address this because it is impacting our school systems, our health care.”
Recent Census data, Epley said, “has really stirred up anger. When you think about what’s going to happen over the next 40 years, it changes the face of a nation.”
Southamptonites get upset "because they see the guys standing on the street,” Epley said, adding that the bottom line is a that a 1980s Supreme Court decision rendered loitering laws unconstitutional.
“They have the right to stand there,” he said. “If they were begging, it would be different, but they aren’t doing that.”
Epley said some day laborers have gang ties. “We’ve picked these people up, but the reality is, it’s a very small number.”
Quality of life issues, however, such as littering and public urination, proliferate, he said, another reason answers are needed.
Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate said with a sluggish economy, many immigrants who cannot work want to go home but can’t afford the trip.
“There’s not a lot of work right now," she said. "These men and women are suffering. They’re skimping and some people still can’t feed their children.”
To that end, a program exists to send people back to their countries. But with the summer work season kicking in, she said many will go home in October and November.
Sister Margaret agrees that answers lie in the federal arena. “The government has to stop this nonsense, straighten it out,” she said. “Either you solve the issue or you just continue this crazy way of living.”
She said the misconception is individuals choose to enter the country illegally, when in truth it is virtually impossible for many to enter the United States and become citizens legally.
Immigration attorney Pat Young, who spoke recently at a meeting of the Neighbors in Support of Immigrants group in Hampton Bays, said the path for an individual who wishes to enter the United States legally “is extremely difficult.”
She said there are three ways to enter the country legally.
A United States citizen can apply for a spouse, a child, a brother or sister, or parents. A permanent resident with a green card can apply for a spouse and child. “It’s pretty narrow in terms,” she said.
The second means of entering the country involves employment, but generally an individual must have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and a United States business must apply for an individual and prove a shortage of workers in that field living in the United States.
Finally, Young said, refugees, who can demonstrate persecution in their own country, can enter. Currently, refugees from Central Africa and Iran are applying.
Young also set out to shatter the misconception that illegal immigrants are able to avail themselves of social services. While children born in the United States are able to receive such services, those in the country illegally are only entitled to emergency Medicaid, “if life and limb is in danger and someone has been hit by a car, and an ambulance brings the person to the hospital.”
She also addressed why someone in the country illegally, who is stopped for a traffic infraction, is not sent home.
“It depends on how the local police handle the case,” Young said. “In many jurisdictions, for minor infractions, if someone is stopped but not convicted the information is not turned over to immigration authorities. In Suffolk County it often is; that’s why people stopped for traffic violations end up deported.”
But fear of deportation “drives a wedge between the immigrant community and law enforcement, because they are perceived as enforcing immigration rather than criminal law,” she said.
“You don’t want people to fear local authorities such as teachers, hospital workers, and local police officers," she said and added that anti-gang initiatives in Nassau County have been more effective because local authorities have the cooperation of the immigrant community.”
She said the first step toward solving the problem lies in “bringing people out of the shadows. You want them to identify themselves.” She suggested a probationary period should be given, with a path toward legalization. And, at the same time, “proper controls at the borders” are critical.
Finally, Young said a legal-worker visa system that would allow employers to bring workers in legally is necessary. “Right now, people are here illegally and can’t go back because they’re afraid they won’t be allowed to return. This encourages people to stay permanently in an illegal situation — exactly what you don’t want.”