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Finding Common Ground on Immigration Debate

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Dozens of East End citizens gathered in the lobby of Guild Hall on Friday evening, shaking out umbrellas while the rain drizzled outside. The crowd wasn’t there to see a play or meander through an art exhibition, but to attend a panel on how the immigrant population affects the local economy. Although the first immigration forum, hosted by U.S. Congressman Tim Bishop, New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, and Southampton Town Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst in March, was somewhat hostile, Friday’s event proved to be calmer, as participants were asked to write their questions on note cards. Many of those questions steered the discussion topics for the evening and people on both sides of the issue seemed to agree on certain points made by the panel.

“I think we can all agree that the immigration system is broken, though we might disagree on the solution,” noted David Dyssegaard Kallick, one of the panelists and a senior fellow at the state’s Fiscal Policy Institute. Other panelists added that economics is at the heart of the immigration argument.
“I think people are angry about how hard they have to work just to get by,” said Joe Gergela, of the Long Island Farm Bureau, responding to a question on why immigration is an emotional topic. His response elicited applause from both sides and dovetailed comments Bishop made earlier in the evening.
“This is an issue which inspires emotion and anger, but anger won’t solve the problem,” said Bishop. ”I want us to come together with the same set of facts.”
Kallick reported that 22 percent of the $1.02 trillion GDP (Gross Domestic Product) for New York State is generated by immigrant workers. In Suffolk County, immigrants account for 13 percent of the population. He noted that these immigrants work in a variety of fields and added that day laborers are a “tiny” portion of the immigrant workforce.
According to Gergela, these foreign-born workers are a vital part of agricultural production on Long Island. Suffolk County is the top agricultural producer for the state, he added. Gergela said enforcing immigration law wasn’t the job of farmers, but the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Noting the role of the federal government, Gergela added that ICE “raids” on local businesses would weaken the economy.
“During the harvest season, if you take away the workforce on these farms it could lead to bankruptcies,” said Gergela.
Maintaining a stable workforce is already a concern for local farmers, noted panelist and Dowling College fellow Judy Brink. Citing a 2008 survey on Long Island farms, Brink said around 68 percent of respondents reported that it was already difficult to maintain their workforce and losing even one worker would force them to sell their land.
For local farmers, attracting and sustaining a legal workforce is extremely difficult, due in part to complicated requirements and a dysfunctional visa system said immigration lawyer Melinda Rubin. Farmers must provide housing, which can be prohibitively expensive on the East End. For H2B visas, which are reserved for landscape, construction and hotel workers, a cap has been set at 66,000 visas nationwide, which Rubin said doesn’t satisfy the country’s labor needs. The visa process, she added, is laborious and long with some immigrants waiting years before receiving a visa.
“The government has made it easier to do the wrong thing instead of the right thing,” said Rubin of illegal immigration.
Although some complain illegal immigrants strain local resources, Rubin argued that illegal immigrants pay sales tax and contribute substantially to the Social Security system. Deporting the estimated 10 million illegal immigrants all at once, Rubin added, would cost around $206 billion, over a five year period, and would result in a $1.8 trillion loss in annual spending.
Kallick, however, disputed these figures and said it was futile to estimate these costs because mass deportation is a near impossible task.
“You don’t want a situation where people have to carry their identification papers on them at all times,” added Kallick. “We need to focus on how we can increase the legal workforce.”
Attendees of the forum, however, disagreed on whether the solution lies in a comprehensive reform of the immigration system or beefed up enforcement of the current immigration regulations.
Elaine Kahl of the Suffolk County Coalition for Legal Immigration believes stopping illegal immigration begins with enforcing the current laws, adding that local government should be diligent in upholding these laws.
Southampton Town Councilwoman Sally Pope said immigration law is a federal matter and the town won’t deputize its police force to carry out these laws.
Thiele promised there will be more forums before the summer season ends. He added that housing will likely be the subject of a follow-up forum.
Of Friday’s event, Throne-Holst said, “This is a process that is unfolding. There are a lot of facts out there and we want to bring them together to create a useful and healthy dialogue.”

Above: Fiscal Policy Institute Fellow David Dyssgaard Kallick says the immigration system is broken.