Experts: Poor Economy Raises Immigrant Backlash

Experts: Poor economy raises immigrant backlash

May 5, 2008

As the economy sinks, hostility against undocumented workers ratchets up.

That's the conclusion of immigration experts from different political viewpoints who spoke yesterday at a panel discussion at Molloy College in Rockville Centre. While speakers sharply disagreed about immigration policy, they found common ground when discussing an anti-immigrant backlash.

Fast-rising gas and food prices, coupled with increasing angst about tight salaries and layoffs, are already fueling anger against undocumented workers, the experts said.

“My concern is that as costs keep rising, employers will be more inclined to hire illegal aliens,” said Michael Cutler, a former U.S. immigration agent who has crisscrossed the country calling for a crackdown on undocumented workers. “This will cause more resentment.”

As the conversation turned into a debate, Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, agreed with Cutler on just one matter – that immigration has become a “flash point” as the economy sputters.

Sentiment against undocumented immigrants has become especially edgy on Long Island, where residents already have high taxes and a high cost of living, the panelists said.

“When there's economic pain, the extreme elements tend to look for someone to blame,” said Roger Clayman, executive director of the Long Island Federation of Labor, who wants to avoid blaming undocumented immigrants for problems. With the housing industry stalling, he said, workers will blame immigrants who work for low wages.

Yesterday's discussion, sponsored by Molloy's Institute for Christian-Jewish Dialogue and the Long Island chapter of the American Jewish Committee, followed several discussions at Adelphi and Hofstra universities, along with churches and village halls, in recent months. But this one had a sense of urgency because of increasing fiscal woes and a debate over the Suffolk legislature's attempt to crack down on contractors hiring undocumented workers.

That legislation, like many other issues, divided the panelists. Cutler, now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank, saw merit in the bill proposed by Legis. Brian Beedenbender (D-Centereach) and others. But Clayman dismissed such moves, saying “they are designed to benefit politically a few folks who introduce the legislation.”

Panelists couldn't even agree on terms to use. Cutler insisted on talking about “illegal aliens,” saying the phrase is used in many other countries. But Valenzuela rejected that as offensive to undocumented workers who, he said, come to this country for a better life.

After Cutler derided immigration lawyers as greedy, audience member David Sperling of Huntington, got a laugh by introducing himself as an immigration lawyer.

Sperling rejected the federal government's plan to build a fence on parts of the U.S.-Mexico border: “If you build a 10-foot-high fence, someone's going to build an 11-foot-tall ladder to get over it.”