Monday, July 21, 2008

Immigration row divides haven for US super-rich

The deportation of illegal workers is dividing Long Island, one of
America's wealthiest regions

* Ed Helmore in Long Island
* The Observer,
* Sunday July 20, 2008
* Article history

Long Island, where rich residents are facing a labour shortage after a
spate of depo rtations. Photograph: Kate Maxwell
It is high season in the Hamptons, the holiday home for America's
superstars and merely super-rich. But behind the perfectly tended
lawns and clipped hedgerows at the far end of Long Island all is not well.

Tiger Woods recently paid $65 million (£32m) for a beachfront home
here. Christie Brinkley, whose recent divorce has been the talk of
Long Island, is a regular visitor. But as a result of a locally
enforced purge of the undocumented immigrants who provide much of the
menial workforce, barmen are disappearing from beach bars, waiters
from the lobster-and- champagne benefit parties and cleaners from the
holiday mansions. Long Island is divided as never before between the
haves and the have-nots.

'The Latino community are living in uncertainty and fear,' said Sister
Margaret Smyth, the head of a church group in Riverhead, one of the
poorest areas of Long Island. 'As a result of the crackdown, we've
created a new underclass of women and children. Their men have been
deported but they want to stay because they want their children
educated. Before, people were poor; now they are extremely poor.'

Up to now summering bankers and celebrities have been more concerned
with th e social dramas of the season, such as the Brinkley divorce and
an entertaining scuffle at an art opening in East Hampton, when white
wine was served in contravention of a new teetotal town ordinance. But
tensions as a result of the crackdown on cheap labour have spilled
embarrassingly into view.

Hotels, restaurants and gardening contractors are predicting an
imminent shortage of able workers. And every day in the car park of
the 7-11 convenience shop on the main road in Southampton, a daily
drama of the poor is played out in one of the most prosperous regions
of America. More than a hundred Mexican, Honduran and Guatemalan day
labourers gather hoping to be picked up for work. Now opposing them
are a group of protesters - Long Island's 'minutemen' - clutching 'No
Amnesty' placards, shouting insults and clearly identifying who should
be the next deportees.

'The protesters have a lot of support,' said Brian Smith, leaning
outside his store, PH Pool. Reports that cross-border immigration may
be slowing was not evident in the Hamptons, he said. 'If anything
there are more immigrants coming than ever before; and I don't see why
they should come here and have their healthcare and babies for free.'
The Latino labourers, who are estimated to make up 20 per cent of the
Long Island workforce, believe the protesters are being paid to
confront them, although they have no proof.

Police hover nearby, ready to swoop at the first sign of a disturbance
that will give them the opportunity to ask for identification. If the
requisite documents are not forthcoming, deportation proceedings may
follow. 'There used to be work but now there are always problems,'
said one worker, before being hustled away by two police deputies. 'We
work hard. We don't cause problems. This is a country of immigrants
... so why do they want to turn against us?'

Luis Valenzuela, director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, said:
'The immigration raids have been quite devastating to a vulnerable
community. Now they are introducing measures that will force people
deeper in the shadows. When people go deeper in the shadows they
become more vulnerable to exploitation.'

The problems of the Latino community are being reflected across the
US. In May, nearly 400 mostly Guatemalan workers at a meatpacking
plant in Ohio were arrested. Instead of being deported, many were
convicted for offering false identification and sentenced to five or
more months in prison. In a recent speech on illegal immigration,
presidential candidate Barack Obama said: 'We need a practical
solution for the problem of the 12 million pe ople who are here
without documentation. '

In the Hamptons, there is no such solution in the offing. The
Southampton congressman Tim Bishop said: 'I don't think there is a
broad understanding of the kind of havoc we are looking at,' he said.

The tension between native locals and the immigrant workers is
unlikely to improve as the local economy deteriorates, in common with
the rest of America. 'I call it mob mentality,' said Sister Margaret,
whose caseload includes taking unscrupulous employers to court for
employing Latino workers, often cheating them of their pay - and then
reporting them for failure to pay taxes. 'I go after the employers and
take them right into court. But people are afraid - they're afraid of
people who look different even though they're not competing for the
same type of work.'

As the cost of keeping the hedges trim and children cared for begins
to spike upwards because of a shortage of immigrant labour, the
Hamptons immigration debate is likely to become even more explosive.
In East Hampton, there have already been a series of seminars on how
better to integrate Latino workers into the community. But the burden
of undocumented and often illiterate immigrant labourers still falls
to charity groups and church outreach programmes which may now be
stretched beyond their limited means.

Acco rding to community activist Ligia Soto, 'people are still
arriving regardless of what they hear or see on the news. Things may
be difficult but they still want to come here to feed their families
and achieve their dreams - and to go back home eventually.'

At least they will find a sympathetic hearing with Lois Nesbitt, a
local business owner. 'If you need a local plumber,' she said, 'you
have to call five and hope one will show up. Immigrant labourers come
to work on time and work hard.'

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