In recent years, immigration on the East End has become a contentious, and often polarizing, issue. Each side — whether it be those who wish to see every undocumented immigrant deported or those who wish to see amnesty for all undocumented immigrants — continues to fight a fierce rhetorical argument against one another. Hoping to bridge the gap between these two groups, US Congressman Tim Bishop, Southampton Town Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst and New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele teamed up to host a forum titled “Immigration in the Hamptons: Beginning a Community Dialogue” on Friday, March 13, at the Southampton Senior Center in Hampton Bays.
While people waved American flags and held up signs saying “Deport Illegals” outside, Bishop told the audience the current status quo of community relations towards immigrants residing in the East End was “unacceptable.”
“I hope we can come to an understanding … and cut through the ugliness [surrounding this issue] to talk in a civil and respectful fashion,” continued Bishop.
He went on to say that while the federal government has focused much of its efforts on border patrol, internal enforcement of immigration laws have been neglected and the visa program is in disrepair. Bishop hopes the federal government will adopt an “earned citizenship” program for the 12 to 15 million undocumented workers currently living in the country.
Creating a path to “earned citizenship” is a bipartisan solution to the problem, said Bishop, and is an idea which has received backing from Senator John McCain and former President George Bush, Jr. After the forum, Thiele added that this policy of “earned citizenship” would make undocumented workers pay back taxes and other various fines.
There were many people in the audience, however, who criticized this plan saying deportation of all undocumented immigrants was still a viable option. Others said that while the nation waits for a full revision and update of immigration laws, the presence of illegal immigrants creates an economic strain on local residents.
One Hampton Bays resident, who is also a contractor, said he is continually outbid on projects because he uses legal labor, while, he added, other contractors employ undocumented laborers for less pay.
“A lot of people are very angry,” said Ronald Lawandowski, the director of the Patriots Border Alliance for Suffolk County.
However, other attendees, like Sag Harbor lawyer Bridget Fleming, wished this anger was tempered with words of compassion.
“There is no doubt that there is a group of people who are very angry, but I think there is a lot of misunderstanding. [Almost] every single one of those people [in that room] comes from an immigrant family, who were faced with identical challenges when they first arrived [to this country] … The solution to deport everyone is impossible,” said Fleming.
Fleming said she attended the meeting to learn how to inspire cultural acceptance in the Sag Harbor community, in order to avoid tragic situations like the murder of Marcello Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant, in Patchogue this past November.
“I want to make sure that doesn’t happen in our school … Cultivating compassion is the only way we can create a safe, happy and prosperous community,” added Fleming.
Thiele reported that the forum on Friday will be one of many to come. He said the principal goal of the forums was to not only facilitate a dialogue, but to also educate the public on the key facts surrounding immigration and immigration policies.
“Obviously holding one forum in two hours, we are only able to scratch the surface of the issue … It will not be just one meeting [though], but a long process of getting information out there,” he said. “Through conversation and discussion, I do think the larger community can start to reach some kind of consensus.”
He added that in the future, the panels might devote a whole forum on one key issue, such as health care or the economics of immigration. According to Thiele, it is also imperative to discuss issues surrounding immigration today, before tensions between the various groups flare up tomorrow.
“The underlying issues that come with immigration are very much ingrained into the East End community,” said Thiele. “[Immigration] is an issue we will be confronted with for a long time.”
Above: A Southampton Town resident voiced his concerns over immigration at the immigration forum hosted by Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst, Assemblyman Fred Thiele and Congressman Tim Bishop.Â