Far from border, a migration flash point

In Danbury, Conn., an influx of illegal immigrants raises hard questions about jobs and the standard of living.

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, Conn., the mayor has called for state police to be deputized as immigration officials to cope with the thousands of undocumented workers in this leafy suburb. 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 $1,000 fines for each offense.

These developments come as concern about undocumented immigration is reaching new heights. A Fox News/ Opinion Dynamics poll released last week found that 91 percent of Americans think that illegal immigration is a very serious or somewhat serious problem.

"What we see is a general failure of the federal government to control undocumented migration into the United States," says Marcelo Suárez-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."

While the US is a nation made up of immigrants, the country is currently in the midst of one of the largest waves of immigration in its history. It's also characterized by an unusually large number who slip in unofficially. That's a product of an inability to control the borders, combined with a lack of resources, and some charge political will, to police the businesses that hire illegals. The result is a shadow system that is mutually beneficial to the employers, who have a stable source of cheap labor, and to the illegal workers, who can make 10 times as much here as they can at home.

Supporters note that these new immigrants bring with them a strict work ethic and a willingness to take jobs that many Americans would not, to say nothing of the rich diversity they bring.

But critics charge that the arrangement is ultimately destructive to the community because large numbers of undocumented workers drive down wages, and thus the standard of living.

They also say that the undocumented workers are victims, rather than "winners." That's because they are routinely paid below the prevailing wage rates and often end up prey to unethical employers.

And then there are tensions wrought by the clash of two very different cultures, the Anglo and Hispanic. While they echo concerns raised in New York as millions of immigrants passed through Ellis Island, they are reaching a boiling point today in many smaller, suburban cities like Danbury. This municipality was the hat capital of the world in the 19th century but is now home to several electronics, plastic, and machinery manufacturers.

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 backyards 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, cofounder 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 traditional 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 new jacket at the mall.

Residents making these arguments maintain that the real economic culprits are not immigrants, but the large corporations that outsource better-paying manufacturing jobs to places like China and India, as well as the local ones that exploit immigrant laborers.

Some are concerned that groups like Connecticut Citizens are scapegoating Danbury's newcomers. "These men are really talking pure nonsense. What they're saying about the immigrants is so poisonous and vile, it's so anti-everything," says Maria Cinta Lowe, executive director of the Hispanic Center of Greater Danbury. "What they're really trying to do is damage the situation in our community. They're instigating evil."

One thing is clear: The inflamed emotions on both sides are indicative of what the nation has to come to terms with.

"The bottom line is that we have close to 11 million unauthorized residents in the country today," says Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration in Washington. "We have to decide either to regularize it or combat it. But what you're seeing is a normal reaction to a huge population."

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