By Leah Rae, The Journal News
November 29, 2007
WHITE PLAINS - An immigration forum at Pace Law School last night became largely a strategy session on how to respond to the virulent anti-immigrant sentiment that seems to be rising across the country.
Among the questions: Do immigrant supporters need their own Lou Dobbs? Should they insist on using words like "undocumented" and reject the use of "illegal alien?" Should they accuse their opponents of racism when they see it?
About 50 people, including attorneys, students, English-language teachers and others, took part in a discussion hosted by the school's Immigration Justice Clinic and several student groups. Jane Guskin and David Wilson, authors of the book "The Politics of Immigration,"invited discussion about the fact and fiction in the immigration debate. Much of the conversation revolved around how to respond to misconceptions, like the assumption that illegal immigrants are eligible for welfare benefits or that they pay no taxes.
The first question the group took on was the modern refrain: "What part of illegal don't you understand?"
With lawyers chiming in, they went over the facts: Being in the United States without authorization is a civil violation, not a criminal charge. Crossing the border without inspection is a misdemeanor. Re-entering the country after deportation is a felony.
Guskin said those who demonize undocumented immigrants should step back and consider that they've broken the law, too, by speeding, rolling through stop signs, and other minor violations. To Mark Levine, a Yorktown attorney who was in the audience, that wasn't muchof a response.
"It's not a winning argument," he said. To understand the anger over illegal immigration, it's necessary to address the issue of laws being violated, he said.
Guskin and Wilson emphasized that the vast majority of people around the world have little or no chance of immigrating legally or even obtaining a tourist visa. Once here unlawfully for a year or more, there are few ways to legalize their status without returning home andfacing a 10-year bar from re-entry. It's not that they refused to jump through hoops, she said, but that "there are no hoops for them to jump through."
Everyone in the group seemed to agree that the push to legalize the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants is being lost in a polarized debate in which neither side is listening to the other.
To Lee Seham, a labor attorney in White Plains, supporters of immigration reform need to show middle-wage, American workers that they are being hurt by a system that won't allow undocumented immigrants to legalize themselves.
Not only are the undocumented workers being exploited, but unscrupulous contractors are getting an advantage unless the system changes.
"What we have now is the equivalent of prohibition," he said. Referring to exploitation, he said there is an "Al Capone" on every construction site.