Wednesday, September 26, 2007

NY Times: Towns Rethink Laws Against Illegal Immigrants

The New York Times has an interesting article today about Riverside, NJ, a town that passed a law subjecting those who knowingly hire or rent to illegal immigrants to civil and criminal liability. The law was passed three years ago, but because of the legal and economic consequences, it has been rescinded.

Quotes from the article:

“I don’t think people knew there would be such an economic burden,” said Mayor George Conard, who voted for the original ordinance. “A lot of people did not look three years out.”

“The business district is fairly vacant now, but it’s not the legitimate businesses that are gone,” a former mayor who pushed for the law said. “It’s all the ones that were supporting the illegal immigrants, or, as I like to call them, the criminal aliens.”

Many businesses that remain are having a hard time. Angelina Guedes, a Brazilian-born beautician, opened A Touch From Brazil, a hair and nail salon, on Scott Street two years ago to cater to the immigrant population. At one point, she had 10 workers.

Business quickly dried up after the law against illegal immigrants. Last week, on what would usually be a busy Thursday afternoon, Ms. Guedes ate a salad and gave a friend a manicure, while the five black stylist chairs sat empty.

“Now I only have myself,” said Ms. Guedes, 41, speaking a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese. “They all left. I also want to leave but it’s not possible because no one wants to buy my business.”


The article describes a ghost town, with boarded up storefronts and for sale signs in the downtown section of town.

The town where I grew up in New York has been the center of a national immigration debate, because of unsuccessful efforts to stop day laborers from meeting up to look for work each morning. Immigration has had mixed consequences in my town. Our small public schools have bulged in size, and the buildings can't really keep up. The housing market has been hurt, because illegal immigrants pack multiple families into small apartments. The culture of small town, USA has been altered by the influx of different language and culture. Our identity as an Italian and Irish community has been reshaped.

On the other hand, I shudder to think what our main street, Mamaroneck Ave., would look like without illegal immigrants from Mexico and South America. There are many industries that rely on the immigrants as labor and consumer. One of my favorite parts of my town's main drag is that there are independently owned and operated family storefronts. While Rye and White Plains are littered with Banana Republics, Victoria Secrets, and other schlocky corporate brands, Mamaroneck has local run markets and old- school stores that give it its charm.

Without immigrants the town would look like Rye, as if a high end mall had exploded and its stores scattered across the streets. Or, it would be completely empty, with hay dust balls skipping down Mamaroneck Ave, as all the "white people" shop in the Westchester, 10 miles away.

Mamaroneck has always been an immigrant town. And I suspect most of the problems I detailed in the early paragraph could have been said about the Irish and Italians that moved there in the middle of last century. The growth and evolution of a town is a slow and painful thing. Change always is, but that doesn't make it wrong.


Kris said...

Riverside demonstrates a certain withdrawal a community can suffer for taking steps to recify systematized lawlessness. It could also be the future of Mamaroneck. The point most of interest to me is what will become of Riverside in the future. If it cannot recover, then a very significant amount of America's small towns are in trouble, and I may have to entirely rethink my stance on illegal immigration.

C. P. Coleta said...

Great piece, and you point out something crucial: The federalism aspect of the issue. While border towns may feel like lawlessness and violence are rampant because of illegal imm., your town has a different view, one more complex than "deport 'em all". It's a lot of grey area to deal with because of the families that are involved and the way the economy changes and adapts to that reality, as yo mentioned. Riverside is screwed, ironically, for essentially follwoing the rules.