Illegal workers becoming flash point
More towns take it upon themselves to adopt, enforce immigration laws By Alexandra Marks
DANBURY, Conn. - Fed up with the federal government's inability to control the influx of undocumented workers, an increasing number of local communities are taking matters into their own hands.
In Danbury, the mayor has called for state police to be deputized as immigration officials to cope with the thousands of undocumented workers in town. In New Ipswich, N.H., the police chief has begun charging illegal immigrants with criminal trespass after federal officials released others he'd arrested. And in Elsmere, Del., the Town Council is considering an ordinance that would fine undocumented workers $100. The landlords who rent to them and the employers who hire them would face a $1,000 fine for each offense.
"What we see is a general failure of the federal government to control undocumented migration into the United States," says Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of Immigration Studies at New York University. "At the same time, there's a growing momentum at the state level, county level and in local communities to attempt to manage, in however faulty or problematic way, this elephant in the room in today's migration."
They arrived in past decade
Officially, the census estimates that Danbury has 77,000 residents. But the mayor and others say the real number is closer to 92,000 because of an estimated 15,000 undocumented workers, many of whom moved in over the past decade.
They've come for plentiful jobs in construction and landscaping in neighboring and wealthy Fairfield County. Danbury is also a better place for immigrants to raise their families than, say, the Lower East Side of New York. And that's why they come, says Wilson Hernandez, past president of the Ecuadorian Civic Center. "They want to come here so they can make a living, just to provide some bread to keep their families stable," he says.
But for some longtime residents like Lydia Yaglenski, a mother who runs a body-shop business, they are lawbreakers, plain and simple. She contends that the presence of the undocumented workers has overburdened the local schools with a large number of children who can't speak English.
"It's not only the education," she adds. "We have to have more police. These people park their cars everywhere; a landlord buys a house, two people come to rent it, and before you know it, there are 20 living there."
Such frustrations came to a head at a meeting last month of the newly formed Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Control. More than 150 people turned out to voice concerns about the impact that undocumented workers are having on the community - everything from the large volleyball games some immigrants play in their back yards to the decrease in local wages.
"The illegals have a distinct advantage economically over legals: They displace workers who would otherwise have those jobs," says Paul Streitz, co-founder of Connecticut Citizens. "They accept wages that are so low that it eventually gets to the point that contractors and others can't but use illegals. Otherwise, they can't effectively compete for business."
But some of Danbury's residents, old and new, see such concerns as shortsighted and uninformed at best, and bigoted at worst. These residents note that undocumented workers make it possible for many longtime businesses to survive: They do jobs, such as cleaning toilets, that others shun. They also help keep consumer prices low on everything from a dinner out to a jacket at the mall.