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Latino laborers targeted

Farmingville, N.Y.

This bucolic little village a short distance from Long Island’s fashionable Hamptons has fast become the latest front in a national debate over immigration. While the Bush administration wrestled over the legal status of some 6 million undocumented Latino immigrants, Farmingville’s conflict over undocumented immigrants heated up during a recent conference sponsored by Sachem Quality of Life, an aggressive local anti-immigrant group that takes its name from a Long Island school district.

Immigration experts have suggested that Sachem’s appearance in this working-class town of ranch homes, strip malls and white steeples is part of a larger nationwide trend: a grassroots push to restrict immigration.

A sachem, according to the dictionary, is a Native American chief.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that 5 million undocumented immigrants were living in the United States in 1996. Census 2000 estimates that figure may have doubled to include nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country. An estimated 3 million are from Mexico. A corresponding 60 percent rise in the nation’s Latino population has fueled a nationwide backlash against Latino immigrants.

The decade-long rise in numbers of undocumented immigrants in the United States has increased tensions in this formerly tolerant pocket of New York state and elsewhere in the nation.

Many familiar with politics in Farmingville and Long Island’s Suffolk County believe Sachem has played a pivotal role in ratcheting up the level of conflict over the town’s newest arrivals. What worries watchdog human rights groups and local officials most, though, is the group’s ties to several national organizations that back immigration restrictions. In early August, Sachem invited several of those organizations to its “Congress on Immigration Reform” at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Heritage Hall in the neighboring town of Centereach, N.Y. Invitations went to the ultra-conservative John Birch Society and to American Patrol, an organization listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.

Grassroots immigration reform groups such as Sachem have popped in Georgia, Colorado, North Carolina, Utah and Oregon -- states that until recently had low immigrant populations. Advocates for the new immigrants say the Sachem conference is part of a growing effort to export anti-immigrant sentiment to new territories. Devon Burkhardt, a spokesman for the Center for New Community, a Chicago area faith-based immigrant advocacy group, pointed to Sachem’s ties to FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

“What’s happening with these groups is that they’re finding out that metropolitan areas like San Francisco or New York City are largely supportive of immigrants and that their vitriolic rhetoric is not going to work in those places anymore,” said Burkhardt. “So they are moving their activities to the Midwest and to the South and other more rural areas.”

According to The New York Times, the burgeoning national coalition of immigration reform groups led by the Federation for American Immigration Reform ran over $500,000 worth of media advertisements in the Midwest and the South in April and May. The ads, which also ran in New York City in August, condemned the Bush administration’s proposal to grant guest worker status to 3 million undocumented immigrants working in the United States.

‘Nothing short of invasion’

During a month-long investigation of conditions for day laborers in Farmingville, New Community volunteers found Sachem borrowing tactics from FAIR, using incremental steps to curb immigrants’ basic rights. Immigrant advocates believe that Sachem’s rhetoric is directly linked to an incident last fall when two Mexican laborers were picked up in Farmingville by two white men posing as contractors and were beaten senseless in a nearby abandoned factory.

Recently those sentiments seemed to have crossed county lines. In an early summer battle to shut down taxpayer funding for a hiring hall in Farmingville’s neighboring Nassau County town of Farmingdale, Sachem argued that the influx of immigrants is “nothing short of an invasion.”

The hiring hall would have offered some 1,500 new immigrants English lessons and legal advice.

Workplace Project, an organization that advocates for day laborers’ rights, said it is no coincidence that Farmingdale’s closure of the center followed on the heels of County Executive [Robert] Gaffney’s veto of a bill to fund a similar hiring hall in Farmingville.

“What we really found with these kinds of groups is there is a progression of anti-immigrant ordinances,” Burkhardt said. “Sachem tried to push an ordinance outlawing congregating in the streets. Then there was the hiring site. It is clearly designed to ratchet up the anti-immigrant sentiment in the area.”

The Farmingville hall, slated to be operated by Catholic Charities, faltered largely because of the Sachem’s activism. The organization, which claims its list of e-mail newsletter subscribers, recently hit the 700 mark, organized a call-in campaign that quashed plans to fund the site with $80,000 from the local treasury. Eric A. Kopp, chief deputy county executive for Suffolk County, denied that Gaffney had bowed to pressure from Sachem. “Our problem with the hiring hall is in using tax dollars to provide a facility for what amounts to activities that are outside the law,” Kopp said.

John K. Bingham, director of immigrant services for the Long Island branch of Catholic Charities, doesn’t agree that the hall posed a threat to law and order in Farmingville. Bingham points to the success of some 35 other hiring halls that have been set up across the country to accommodate the influx of immigrant laborers. “There were already two successful sites that [Gaffney] could have looked at. But essentially he vetoed the positive experiences of Long Island communities that had already dealt with this issue in a positive way,” said Bingham.

Sachem members say that county officials should not “encourage illegals to come to Farmingville.” They complain that the day laborers that gather each day along Farmingville’s main street to wait for work evade taxes and crowd Americans out of the labor market. The immigrants often work a 12-to-14-hour day at $10 an hour without benefits. Often their wages are withheld and they are forced to live in crowded and overpriced housing. Sachem accuses immigrants of dragging down property values, raising the crime rate and endangering children.

The group’s arguments are a familiar refrain for anti-immigrant organizers like Glenn Spencer and Barbara Coe. The two were featured speakers at the Sachem conference. When Spencer founded American Patrol, and Coe started the California Coalition for Immigration Reform about seven years ago they had similar complaints about the large influx of mostly Mexican immigrants arriving in their Southern California towns.

Coe and Spencer are frequently credited with being the co-authors of California’s controversial Proposition 187, legislation aimed at barring undocumented immigrants from receiving health and educational benefits from the state. Although the Supreme Court struck down Proposition 187 in 1996 as unconstitutional, Spencer and Coe’s decidedly dystopian view of immigration still holds sway in large parts of California and elsewhere in the nation. Spencer’s comment that “the Mexican culture is based on deceit” has been widely publicized by watchdog organizations, and during the conference he stated that he stood by those words. In her remarks to the 100 or so supporters gathered at the hall, Coe also said she would brook no retreat, referring to immigrants as “the people who take our jobs, trash our environment, rob, rape and murder us and then demand we reward them for sharing their drugs and disease with us.”

Immigration experts say that Coe and Spencer’s initial success with Proposition 187 was largely an outgrowth of California’s sudden swing toward recession during the early 1990s. “You have to look at [former California Gov.] Pete Wilson, who won reelection by bashing immigrants,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based policy advisory group. “State employment had gone down nearly a third at that time. His legacy is a Republican Party that can no longer gain a foothold in California. Anti-immigrant politics don’t work well in the long run.”

As in California, immigrants frequently become targets during difficult economic periods. While the unemployment rate in Farmingville has remained low in recent years, several key employers in the area have closed shops in the town’s trademark strip malls. Sharry says he thinks the current panic over a national economic downturn is an important factor in Sachem’s success. “What I hope is that in two years people will say whatever happened to those people. But then, who knows? Maybe there’ll be a recession and Farmingville will become a new clarion call for nativist groups that want to see an end to immigration,” said Sharry.

The economic factor

Clearly, economics is an important factor in reformulating the nation’s immigration policy. The debate has reached heartland states such as Iowa, where a sharp decline in the overall population has combined with concerns about the state’s dwindling labor force and a shrinking economy. Those developments drove Iowa’s Gov. Tom Vilsack to propose a pilot program that would attract immigrants, primarily from Mexico, to the state.

The measure provoked widespread protests from local groups backed by national organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform and American Patrol. Although proponents of immigration reform complain that the plan will jeopardize jobs in places such as Mason City, Iowa, the fears appear to be overblown since, according to census figures, the overall unemployment rate in the area is just over 2 percent. Relatively low unemployment rates in Iowa have led several large employers and unions to back Vilsack and the Bush administration’s amnesty plan. “The big difference between Iowa and Farmingville is that in Iowa you have political leaders who are standing up to these groups,” Sharry said. Politicians are especially keen to resolve the issue and capitalize on the policy change to capture the nation’s increasingly powerful Latino voting block.

Suffolk County officials and local community activists claim that Sachem’s power stems more from its visibility at town meetings and public events than from genuine support from people in the community. Still, Ray Wysolmierski and Margaret Bianculli-Dyber, Sachem’s founders and most vocal members, are now household names in much of Farmingville and surrounding Brookhaven Township. “We’re not going to allow ourselves to be invaded,” said Wysolmierski. “The psychological terrorism that is otherwise known as political correctness is not going to work here. What we’re saying is take your sensitivity training and put it where the sun don’t shine.”

Sachem’s members say they are simply defending their right to live “without all the effects of urban sprawl.”

Nadia Marin-Molina, director of Workplace Project, said it is unfortunate that Sachem has been able to export its agenda to other communities. “The problem right now,” Marin-Molina said, “is that Sachem is spreading fear and hatred. What you have in Farmingville is not just the employers that are the problem: It’s a group of anti-immigrant neighbors who are organizing against the workers. They follow workers with their video cameras. Workers will get spit at in the streets. They have stones thrown at them. Kids on their bicycles will try to run them over. They figure that they’re illegal so they have no rights.”

Despite the conflict and media attention generated by Spencer and Coe’s participation in the conference, Young and others discounted fears that groups like American Patrol have found, in Sachem and other local groups around the country, a base for national support. “I think that part of what’s happened is that they’ve been driven out of California essentially,” said Young, “and they’re trying to set off prairie fires in other communities around the country, like on Long Island.”

Ed Hernandez, of Brookhaven Citizens for Peaceful Solutions, said local immigrant advocates had devised a new strategy to cope with Sachem organizers. Hernandez and other local organizers emphasized that it was important to them to minimize the possibility of violence and the negative media attention that follows conflict. “We don’t need to disrupt the community further and perpetuate the violence or the potential for violence,” Hernandez said.

In lieu of a counter-protest, Brookhaven Citizens for Peaceful Solutions and other organizations opposed to Sachem’s message held a news conference outside County Executive Gaffney’s office in nearby Hauppauge the day before the conference was to begin. About 40 people showed up with signs voicing their support for Long Island’s immigrant day laborers. Immigrant advocates expected a subdued event reflecting the diversity of opinions about immigration.

Despite their hopes for a peaceful gathering, the sudden unannounced arrival of Spencer and several Sachem members turned a routine news conference into a near street brawl. Spencer’s impromptu lecture on immigration reform boomed from the sidelines as several day laborers and journalists jockeyed to get a better view of him. While representatives from Catholic Charities, Workplace Project, United Day Laborers of Long Island and other immigrant advocate groups called for tolerance and peace, a shouting match between Spencer and immigrant advocates nearly drowned out the speakers on the podium.

Patrick Young, director of the Long Island Refugee Center and an organizer of the news conference, pointed out that Sachem had used similar tactics last year when immigrant advocates organized a nighttime vigil for the two Mexican laborers who were hospitalized in serious condition after being attacked by two white men last fall. News cameras at the vigil captured images of an angry Margaret Bianculli-Dyber charging toward a crowd and screaming for immigrant “invaders” to “go home.”

“We purposely are meeting here so that we would minimize the possibility of any type of outburst like this,” Young said at the beginning of the news conference.

Regardless of Sachem’s influence in Brookhaven, it’s obvious that not all share its outlook. The Rev. Allen Ramirez, a pastor at the nearby Brookville Reformed Church has worked closely with the day laborers of Farmingville for more than a decade. “[Sachem] is not a group made up of soccer moms or people who are concerned about ‘quality of life’ in the neighborhood,” Ramirez, said. “Their real agenda is ridding the area of all people who happen to have a different skin color than theirs.”

Savage beating

The day before Sachem’s weekend conference, Israel Perez Arvizu, a Mexican day laborer, testified in Suffolk County Criminal Court about the savage beating he and another day laborer endured at the hands of the two white men. “I thought I was going to die,” Arvizu said. Hernandez said of the beating, “It serves to highlight what the damage can be from groups like this coming into the community.”

Spencer and others argued that the beating was an isolated event. “Out of the 11 million illegal aliens in the United States, they point to two who were beaten up?” Spencer said. “I’m sorry that the two people who did that are probably not the finest people in the world, by definition. But two? With 11 million violating our laws and hurting America, it’s shocking the restraint the American people have shown.”

Such comments worry Ramirez. “Unfortunately, it seems like things have to get worse before they get better,” Ramirez said. “It’s like with the civil rights movement in the ‘60s. You had to see the water cannons and the dogs harassing protesters before people woke up and said injustice is injustice no matter what the law says.”

Meanwhile, Sachem members planned to participate in a vigil against amnesty for illegal immigrants and a guest worker program for Mexicans. The vigil was to begin Sept. 2 in front of the Department of Justice in Washington. The vigil, organized by a group called Virginia Coalition for Immigration Reform, was to coincide with Mexican President Vicente Fox’s visit to the United States Sept. 3-6.

Candace Rondeaux and Asjylyn Loder are freelance reporters residing in New York City.

Related Web sites

Brookhaven Citizens for Peaceful Solutions

Center for New Community

Federation for American Immigration Reform

The National Immigration Forum

Sachem Quality of Life

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001 [corrected 09/21/2001]