NEW YORK — AS Sun Belt lawmakers mount a blitzkrieg on illegal immigration, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) are sending this message to would-be Americans: The Empire State will always make room for another mattress.
In June, Governor Cuomo declined to join Governors Pete Wilson (R) of California, Fife Symington (R) of Arizona, and Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida in lawsuits against the federal government to recover monies their states spent on illegal immigrants. Instead, Cuomo will negotiate with the White House for repayment because, in the words of Cuomo immigration specialist Emily Saltzman, ``We want to do it in a way that won't fuel the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment.''
These flames were kindled by last year's World Trade Center bombing and the grounding of the ship Golden Venture off Queens with a cargo of 300 illegal Chinese immigrants.
Not only did the ship episode provide a glimpse into the underworld of human smuggling, it evoked a spate of public resentment nationwide that the three Sun Belt governors - all up for reelection in November - have seized upon.
But one year later, the case against the trade center bombers concluded with little fanfare. Similarly, the Golden Venture passengers have yet to be deported, and most New Yorkers contend, matter-of-factly, that they probably never will be.
Last month, Cuomo said he loves and welcomes immigrants, legal or illegal, and Mayor Giuliani told reporters that ``some of the hardest-working, most-productive people in this city are undocumented aliens.''
Historical port of entry
Why don't New Yorkers, with an estimated half-million illegals in the state, gleefully hop aboard the anti-immigration bandwagon? Analysts cite three reasons: history, diversity, and money.
``New York has always been the port of entry to America,'' says Manny Papir, spokesman for Mayor Giuliani.
``It often provides the best opportunity for immigrants who start with nothing.''
Since the first giant wave of Northern European immigrants settled in lower Manhattan more than 100 years ago, the city has developed and sustained mechanisms to help accommodate new arrivals.
The 46,000 legal aliens and the uncounted illegals who arrived in New York City last year received temporary housing, education, day care, and health care from hundreds of service organizations and settlement houses.
One such organization, the Hamilton-Madison House, celebrated its 96th anniversary this year. Originally founded to help Italians and Jews, executive director Frank Modica says the center served 7,500 immigrants last year, the bulk of them Asian and Hispanic. ``The faces have changed,'' Mr. Modica says, ``but the needs have not.''
This enormous variety plays a crucial role in immigrant tolerance, Ms. Saltzman says. ``The biggest group of immigrants now are the Dominicans, and they represent only 16 percent of the state total,'' she says, pointing out that in California, 70 percent of the immigrants are Mexican.
Saltzman concedes that the breadth of foreign languages in New York's immigrant pool complicates services, but she argues that their economic contribution outweighs all burdens. ``Basically, the costs are education, emergency care, and incarceration of criminal aliens,'' she says.
``Immigrants, legal or illegal, come here to work. The benefits are not the draw, they're not that great. Immigrants attract foreign capital and technological innovation, maintain ties to their homelands, and help New York maintain its role as an international city.''
They also drive a significant chunk of the economy. ``In New York, 11 percent of the work force works for immigrant-owned businesses,'' Saltzman says. ``They generate $7 billion a year.''
A study released in May by the Washington-based Urban Institute found that immigrants who arrived before 1980 have, on the average, higher household incomes than natives, and arrive with higher levels of education. The researchers showed that federal taxes paid by immigrants last year outpaced federal spending on immigrant services, and that although illegal immigrants tend to be a drain on local governments and stagnant economic zones, they create more jobs overall than they take away.
Few statistics say as much about immigration as does a trip to Manhattan's Lower East Side. Along Canal Street in Chinatown, shop owners and street vendors crowd the sidewalks, hawking gold watches, fresh fish, and ginseng. The cafes of Little Italy serve thin-crust pizza beneath a wash of World Cup banners, and a streak of Jewish shops on Essex Street display skullcaps and sewing machines.
Down near the Brooklyn Bridge, Russian and Mexican immigrants pad the sidewalks. There are few, if any, empty buildings.
``I represent a district that will be a standard bearer for all humanity in race relations and tolerance,'' says City Councilman Antonio Pagan. ``New immigrants are absorbed into the social standard that we all live together.''
The recently approved city budget will take a bite out of many of the programs that aid immigrants, but Mr. Papir, Giuliani's spokesman, maintains that the cuts are the result of a drive to cut costs and boost efficiency. ``We're not opposed to immigrant services,'' he says, ``just the current delivery of services.''
Unlike many Sun Belt states, there has been no legislative push to deny services to undocumented immigrants.
``Anyone who has to be in hiding and living in fear cannot contribute,'' Mr. Pagan says. ``We should not restrict any part of immigration. We should help these people become part of the social fabric, not the fringe.''