What are the economic effects of the debate over immigration reform?

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Debate over immigration reform, and its economic impact, rages

By Gregory Zeller

(Long Island Business News - May 2011)

Teeming with industries that request and require labor from international pools, Long Island is a reference point for both sides of the national debate over immigration reform, and its economic ramifications.

For reasons both political and practical, that won't soon change. What's changed is immigrant labor's contribution to Long Island's gross product: now 18 percent and climbing, according to the Albany-based Fiscal Policy Institute.

Whether this negatively affects employment rates of American citizens is unproven; whether the influx of legal migrant workers will continue, and whether the illegal ones will be expelled, is undecided. But ask Island businesspeople and advocates on any side of the issue, and one answer rings true: Without immigrant workers, Long Island industry would be a very different animal indeed.


Majorities within Long Island's agriculture, hospitality and building industries are naturally pro-immigration, and many key principals lobby for more permissive guest-worker laws. But numerous Islanders, citing quality-of-life infractions like illegal, overcrowded residences and imposing day-worker assemblies, take hard-line anti-immigrant positions.

The rhetoric has cooled since the blistering hyperbole that followed the 2008 Patchogue murder of immigrant Marcelo Lucero, stabbed by white teenager Jeffrey Conroy, but with the national debate gaining steam, emotions here still run hot.

"These guys are not just picking lettuce anymore," said Tom Wedell, an East End "anti-illegal-immigrant activist" who blames undocumented workers for the 2002 collapse of his company, Airtight Construction. "These guys have every job now. They're in every trade. And they're gutting this economy."

Wedell, "just a contractor on the East End who's had enough of my competition using illegal labor," first protested -- with large homemade signs and a few followers -- in 2006, near the Southampton 7-Eleven, a known "hiring site" for illegal workers. His plan was to "go out there for a couple of days ... to let people know we weren't happy."

Five years later, his protest persists -- five years, four arrests (on disorderly conduct charges, each time dismissed) and numerous run-ins with both migrant workers and law enforcement. According to Wedell, illegal aliens have taunted him ("Get out of our face, George Bush already gave us your country!") and Southampton cops have harassed him.

"The cops were giving us a hard time, checking our ID, seeing if any [protesters] had outstanding tickets," he said. "They violated my rights to the umpteenth degree."

Wedell's well-documented tale shows exactly how inflamed the issue has become in certain East End pockets. In that way, it's similar to the Lucero murder, which spotlighted the East End's racial divide. After the killing, numerous Hispanic residents emerged with claims of harassments and even assaults which, they said, were ignored by the authorities At a time when Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy made national headlines for cracking down on immigration violations, and fanned flames with often incendiary comments (labeling immigrant-rights activists "communists"), the Lucero murder became a powder keg..

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