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Pros and cons of immigration
The Providence Journal


March 28, 2007
Wednesday AM

Several years ago, Terry Gorman began to think there was an opinion gap on the volatile issue of illegal immigration.

Leaders in the business and political communities, Gorman says, did not appreciate the anger among average citizens over the issue of people entering the United States illegally, working illegally and having children who automatically become U.S. citizens.




"I think there is a huge disconnect between how average people feel about this and the politicians and leaders of many groups," says Gorman, a retired U.S. postal worker. "You go to the State House hearings and testify and it seems all the (media) coverage comes down on the side of ... the ACLU, the Urban League, and the Latino organizations.

"I'm not against immigrants, we need immigrants," Gorman says. "But you have to come here legally."

In February 2006, Gorman started a lobbying and research group, Rhode Island Immigration Law Enforcement, with six members. Roughly a year later, the group has more than 250 members, a Web site and a presence at the State House lobbying for legislation that would crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.

On the other side is Bill Shuey, executive director of the International Institute of Rhode Island, an organization that helps immigrants and teaches them English.

"Obviously you can't let everybody in here who wants to come," Shuey said. "But I think we want to deal with people who have been here a long time in a humane manner. We need to have a policy in which there is some ... path to citizenship."

The modern controversy over immigration probably dates to 1994, when California voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question called Proposition 187, a measure that would have denied most public services, including health care and education, to illegal immigrants.

The courts stuck down most of Proposition 187, but it kicked off a debate in the western and southwestern states - which share porous borders with Mexico - that has since rippled across the nation, reaching into state houses and the halls of Congress.

The volume has been turned up on the argument in Southeastern New England since the March 6 raid by federal authorities on a textile factory that employed 300 or more illegal immigrants. A probable-cause hearing against officers of the company, Michael Bianco Inc., is on April 6.

Frustrated by what they view as a lack of aggressiveness by the federal government, legislators in states around the country want states to get into a sphere of law enforcement that has long been Washington's job - punishing employers who hire illegal immigrant workers.

While some immigrant advocates, such as Shuey, see an element of racism in the anti-immigrant campaign - current illegal immigrants are largely Hispanic - others, including some academics who have studied the issue, believe opposition to illegal workers is based on economics.

Peter Skerry, a Boston College political science professor and expert on immigration, says it is too easy to argue that racism is behind most of the recent anti-immigrant fervor.

Skerry and other researchers see an economy that has not created jobs for low-skilled Americans and where stagnant wages have been the norm for 25 years for lower-income workers. "Anxieties about immigration are not easily dismissed as irrational or racist," he says.

"Economists agree that the owners of capital, business entrepreneurs, and well-educated professionals benefit overwhelmingly from immigration," Skerry says. "While many ordinary Americans see immigrants as potential competitors for jobs, neighborhood turf, or public resources, the wealthy and merely affluent see them as employees - the nannies, gardeners, dishwashers, maids and laborers who help to get things done."

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said, "Our first obligation is to secure the border. And we need to enforce vigorously responsibility of employers to hire legal workers."

But the issue is complicated, especially when it comes to guest-worker programs - which would allow immigrants into the country for short periods - and even more pointedly, how to deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

For instance, large agricultural interests argue that they need short-term seasonal workers. "The agricultural interests claim they can't put food on American tables without access to foreign workers," Reed says.

Reed says he appreciates the "issue of fairness" - that illegal immigrants should not be able to cut in the citizenship line - but also says that most illegal immigrants are here to work.


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