Illegal immigration “is the third rail of politics,” said James Staudenraus, and an issue that politicians at all levels are loathe to discuss. Without a politician in sight, it still proved to be a contentious issue at a moderated discussion held at Guild Hall in East Hampton last Thursday.
More than anything, the gathering emphasized the depth of anti-Latino sentiment of the East End.
Six panelists, including Staudenraus, a moderator, and an audience of more than 50 people tackled the issue of illegal immigration in a panel discussion titled “Immigration Today: When Did ‘Assimilate’ Become a Dirty Word?”
On the panel were Dr. Lee Koppelman, the executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board, an autonomous research organization; Staudenraus, the Eastern Regional Field Director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that he described as the largest non-profit, non-partisan immigration watchdog group in the United States; Irv Miljoner, the director of the Long Island Wage and Hourly Division of the U.S. Department of Labor; Htun Han, a native of Burma who immigrated to the U.S. and now works in real estate on the East End; immigrant advocate Isabel Sepulveda de Scanlon; and Ray Wysolmierski, the spokesman for Sachem Quality of Life, a civic group formed in response to the growing number of illegal migrant workers in Farmingville. Journalist Warren Strugatch moderated the panel.
The process of assimilation and the differences between legal and illegal immigration were discussed, but it was the effect of illegal immigration on the local job market and the local communities that provoked the most passionate responses from the panel and the audience.
Assimilation And Language
Strugatch described Han as someone who “embodied the American dream.” When asked what brought him to the United States, Han responded, “One thing that jumps out without even thinking is the freedom.”
Han said, “I don’t view myself as an immigrant per se. I view myself as someone who came into the country and assimilated.” Han remains a firm supporter of assimilation. “To integrate oneself into the society is most important,” he said, fingering learning the English language and education as the two most important parts of assimilation. “Communication is vital,” he said. Koppelman concurred, noting that historically, the key component of assimilation and the “common denominator of acculturation was language.” He noted, “It is impossible to assimilate without language.”
Illegal Immigration And Jobs
The panelists disagreed on the effect that immigration, both illegal and legal had on the local job market. “Immi-gration coming in has been a saving grace” in light of the labor shortage on the East End of Long Island, Koppelman said. He added that the area would be in “dire straights” without influx of immigration and that it was a “complete, total fallacy” that immigrants took jobs away from U.S. citizens. The jobs filled by illegal immigrants were at the lower end of the market, “the jobs that go begging,” he said.
Staudenraus disagreed. He spoke at length about the costs, both hidden and overt, of illegal immigration. FAIR maintains that illegal immigration is socially and economically detrimental to American citizens, and should be halted completely. “Illegal immigration is an enormous social experiment gone wrong,” but has been allowed to continue because of an “insatiable demand for cheap labor,” Staudenraus said. He discounted the suggestion that illegal immigrants filled jobs that native-born Americans would not take. “Americans will do dirty, dangerous jobs for living wages,” he contended.
Miljoner noted that the Labor Department is not involved in questions of immigration; rather, it is a wage and standards enforcement agency. “The rule of the law is that people must be paid for hours worked” notwithstanding their immigration status, he said. “It is important for everyone to have strong, firm, and full enforcement of labor laws.”
Staudenraus said there were hidden costs associated with illegal immigration, ranging from the costs of incarceration of illegal immigrant felons to hospital costs for uninsured immigrants. “Illegal immigration is not cheap,” he said. “It is subsidized.”
“Illegal immigration has overwhelmed the process of legal immigration,” he added.
At a time when the nation is beset with security concerns about possible terrorist attacks, open borders are a security risk, he said. The resulting illegal immigration “is not just expensive to taxpayers, it is dangerous,” he said. “We are a nation of laws. Anything that undermines the rule of law is a detriment,” he added.
Wysolmierski, who described himself as the “go-to guy for the contrary answer,” spoke about community resentment towards illegal immigrants. A resident of Farmingville, a community that has seen an influx of migrant workers, he said that illegal immigrants were resented there because “they impose themselves on a community that did not ask for them” creating “understandable resentment.”
When the floor was opened to questions, most of those who addressed the panel were anti-illegal immigration, some virulently so. One speaker suggested that the military should be called in to guard the border. A few termed the flow of incoming illegal immigrants an invasion, a position that Wysolmierski agreed with. He said illegal immigrants are coming “not because they want a job, but because they want to occupy the country.” Another questioner, Don Tisdall of East Hampton, said, “In the past six years there has been an acceleration of what I call an invasion into this town.” Tisdall denounced local politicians as “craven and cowardly” for failing to address the issue of illegal immigration. His remarks were met with applause.
Strugatch said that all the politicians he had invited to be on the panel had declined his invitation to attend.