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October 22, 2000; 12:09pm EST

Border Warriors

New York Times


Margaret Bianculli-Dyber seems genuinely hurt when the Sachem Quality of Life Organization, the Farmingville group she founded more than two years ago to protest illegal immigration, is called racist.

Photo shot at VCT rally in Farmingville, NY - 10/14/2000

"I have neighbors who are Hispanic and cousins who are black," she said. "I do not judge people by their race."

Lately, she's also been angry that members of her group have been labeled purveyors of hate just because they want to deport the estimated 1,500 illegal immigrants, most of them from Mexico or Central America, who crowd Farmingville street corners each day to be hired as day laborers.

"Not only is there no remedy for United States citizens who are fighting for their rights and their lifestyle," she said. "Now we're also being called bigots and hatemongers. How is that right?"

The racially charged debate over illegal immigrants has been centered in this largely working-class Suffolk County hamlet of about 15,000 for several years as the number of illegal immigrants has steadily grown. Some homeowners call the newcomers a public nuisance and have accused them of littering, selling drugs, harassing women and consequently lowering local property values. The immigrants, who say they only take jobs that residents do not want, believe they are the ones who are harassed and abused, by contractors who exploit them and by neighbors who make clear they are not wanted here.

Members of the Sachem group concede that there is a need for the kind of labor that the illegal immigrants supply, but they don't believe that there is enough work for all the immigrants or that the need justifies the breaking of immigration laws.

Tensions have increased since the Sept. 17 beating of two day laborers who were picked up in Farmingville by men posing as contractors and taken to an abandoned factory in Shirley, where they were attacked with construction tools and a knife. One suspect, a Queens resident, has been arrested and another, from Holbrook, is being sought in a case that has launched a Justice Department investigation.

Advocates for illegal immigrants say that the Sachem group's weekly protests against the immigrants, the regular taunts "to go back to where you belong," helped create an atmosphere in which last month's attackers felt they could treat day laborers as less than human. Sachem members say they had nothing to do with the violence, which they too abhor, and they accuse the advocates of trying to link them to the incident just to discredit them.

Over time, the rhetoric on both sides has grown more heated and more determined. Elected officials and advocates for immigrants held a candlelight unity rally in Hauppauge last Sunday and worked hard to bring out nearly 3,000 people to urge officials to address the problems of day laborers and to prove that the Sachem group did not represent the views of most Long Islanders. Sachem's members, outraged because they felt that government officials who helped organize at the rally were supporting the rights of illegal immigrants over theirs, held a town hall meeting of their own the day before, where they invited a controversial anti-immigration advocate from California to speak. Sachem's event in Centereach drew about 200 people.

Instead of easing tensions, the two events seem only to have inflamed the situation further. Ms. Bianculli-Dyber was arrested last Sunday and charged with trespassing and resisting arrest after showing up at a Farmingville location where immigrants had gathered to be bused to the candlelight rally. Released on bail, she claimed through her lawyer that the police were treating the immigrants preferentially, allowing immigrants to gather on the spot while forbidding her and about 30 members of her group to cross a police line onto the property.

Ms. Bianculli-Dyber, a business teacher in the New York City public school system, remains bewildered at how fighting for what she believes in has resulted in death threats sent to her home and landed her in jail. She worries that it also could result in her losing the job she loves, noting that advocates for illegal immigrants have started lobbying for her removal from Beach Channel High School in Queens, where she teaches.

A spokeswoman for the Board of Education said that Ms. Bianculli-Dyber had notified her principal of her arrest, but that her case had not yet been forwarded to board offices. The Central Board of Education reviews the arrests of all teachers, but any disciplinary action is usually decided by the local superintendent.

Mrs. Bianculli-Dyber said that many of her best students were immigrants and added that she did not find it contradictory that she could admire these students and yet seek the deportation of immigrants in her hometown.

"Probably many of my students are illegal, but I don't care," she said. "They're not here on their own choice and they're not urinating on my neighbor's front lawn or soliciting my daughter."

She said she was most frustrated by the interference of outsiders to the community, pointing to advocates for immigrants like Rockville Centre-based Catholic Charities and the Hempstead-based Workplace Project. "I believe that if these people had stayed out of it, we could have worked toward some reasonable solutions," she said.

Some elected officials say that Sachem's unyielding position that all illegal immigrants are criminals by virtue of their undocumented status and therefore deserve no rights has made it impossible to negotiate with them.

"I think the group originally grew out of honest and real community concerns about the disproportionate number of day laborers in Farmingville," said Paul J. Tonna, presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature and one of the organizers of last Sunday's candlelight vigil. "But with their insistence on deportation, they developed very quickly into an extremist and bigoted group."

Mr. Tonna said that he agreed with Sachem that the federal government has inadequately enforced immigration laws, but added, "In an imperfect world, you have to deal with the problem and try to come up with community-based solutions." Of the Sachem group, he said, "They have never offered any real solutions and they don't seem interested in serious negotiation."

Ms. Bianculli-Dyber said that the Sachem group, which shares a name with the local school district, has a membership of about 600 families from across Long Island and is just made up of working-class homeowners desperate to hang on to their quiet, suburban lifestyles.

She said she became passionate about the issue in the summer of 1998, when her daughter, who was 25 at the time, failed to meet her at church one Sunday morning. Her daughter explained later that she had been afraid to leave their Farmingville home because five Hispanic men solicited her for sex as they crossed in front of the house to reach a nearby soccer field.

At a community meeting that summer, she found that hundreds of her neighbors had similar complaints. "There were all kinds of horror stories about daughters and sons being solicited, about peeping Toms and men urinating in public," she said. But local officials insisted, she said, "that there was nothing wrong, that these were just hardworking people trying to find work and that we should leave them alone."

Ms. Bianculli-Dyber said that after hearing her neighbors' stories, she started to notice precisely how the illegal immigrants had affected the community where she had lived for more than 20 years. Suddenly she saw how poorly kept a few of the homes around the corner from her house were and realized that immigrants, sometimes as many as 24, crowded into two-bedroom houses scarcely bigger than her own 900-square foot home.

"Then things I took for granted suddenly went away," she said. She had to stop bicycling in the early morning because she would have to run a gantlet through the crowds of immigrants who gather at different locations along Horseblock Road to wait for contractors to drive by and offer them a day's work. Her daughter's evening jogs also ended because her daughter stopped jogging to avoid the men coming home from a day's labor.

So she started the Sachem Quality of Life Organization to try to restore what she felt had been unjustly taken from her. She admits that she and the group have become more hard-line as time has passed. For example, they were originally not opposed to the idea of designating a hiring site in the community as a way to get the laborers off the street corners. A number of communities, including Glen Cove, Huntington Station and Farmingdale, have formal or informal sites where contractors can go to pick up workers. But Sachem now rejects any sanctioned site, because, she said, "that gives the illegals an informal amnesty."

She also became more adamant, she said, after a number of failed attempts at local legislation intended to push the immigrants out of the community. First, in the summer of 1999, the group unsuccessfully sought to make it illegal in Suffolk County to look for work on a public street on the grounds that the men who rushed up to the trucks of contractors offering day jobs were creating a safety hazard.

Last year, they successfully lobbied the Town of Brookhaven for a Neighborhood Preservation Act that limits the number of people who may occupy a rental house, but Ms. Bianculli-Dyber said the law had had little effect on the problem. "If there were proper enforcement, we'd either have fewer of these houses or there'd be fewer illegals in the houses, but neither has happened," she said.

Finally, in August, the county Legislature narrowly rejected a proposal that the county file a federal lawsuit to force the Immigration and Naturalization Service to move against illegal immigrants.

Ms. Bianculli-Dyber said that in each case, if Sachem had been able to get the legislation enacted and enforced, "we as a community would have been validated and the real criminals - the landlords and the contractors who are exploiting these workers - might have been taken to task." Instead, she said, advocates for the immigrants lobbied hard against them and racist labels started to stick.

The Rev. Allan B. Ramirez, pastor of the Brookville Reformed Church and an adviser to the two day laborers who were attacked last month, said that from his first encounters with Sachem, he saw them as "an extremist group that harbored a lot of hate towards day laborers and the Latino community."

Each Saturday morning, when Sachem members gather at street corners to object to the hiring that goes on, he said, "they're not just protesting quietly, they taunt the workers, they call them wetbacks and say things like, 'you people live like animals.' " That, he said, is going over the line. "To me, that's hateful."

Nadia Marin-Molina, executive director of the Workplace Project, said that Sachem's depiction of illegal immigrants as criminals has made it "very easy for people to disrespect their rights as human beings" and consequently created a climate ripe for hate crimes against immigrants. "I think they are very dangerous and they make an already difficult situation for immigrations much harder," she said.

Ms. Bianculli-Dyber said the advocates routinely "play the race card and make these ad hominem attacks because they have no arguments." She added that she was "always forced to take the hard line, because otherwise I have to concede that status doesn't matter and I'm not going to do that. Illegal is illegal."

Ray Wysolmierski, an outspoken member of Sachem, was even blunter. "All I'm hearing is the illegals work hard and all they want to do is bring money back home," he said. "Well, so what? What does that have to do with my quality of life and why is it at the expense of my American dream?

"We're fighting an intrusion, an invasion," he said.

In addition to the frustrations of their defeats, Ms. Bianculli-Dyber said that getting in touch with national anti-immigration groups also helped solidify her group's positions. Organizations like Voices of Citizens Together in California and Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C., convinced her, she said, that compromise solutions like designated hiring sites were self-defeating.

Those groups also offered advice on how Sachem should deal with local officials and introduced her to a more militant vocabulary. "I learned to ask 'Why isn't our government protecting our borders? " she said. "And more and more I became perplexed by the complete stand-down of the enforcement arm of our government."

Mark Thorn, an I.N.S. spokesman, declined to respond to the criticism last week, but when Suffolk legislators debated the possibility of suing the federal immigration service earlier this year, he said, "I.N.S. agents cannot simply approach a group of people and ask for their documentation without probable cause."

Advocates for immigrants point to Sachem's affiliation with the other groups as clear signs of their growing extremism.

Cecilia Munoz, a vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights organization, described the national anti-immigration groups as "hate groups." She noted that Glenn Spencer, the leader of Voices of Citizens Together who spoke at Sachem's rally last weekend, believes that Mexicans on both sides of the border are plotting to reconquer parts of the Southwest. "He makes contentions that are ugly and very divisive," she said. "Not the kinds of things that bring people together, as is clearly needed in Farmingville right now."

The leaders of Sachem Quality of Life Organization say that if anything, their movement is growing, with people from places like Farmingdale, Huntington, Freeport and Centereach starting to join them.

JoAnn Russo, who has lived in Farmingdale for 25 years and has seen the number of illegal immigrants in her neighborhood grow in recent years, said she formed a Farmingdale branch of the group because "it's very difficult for citizens to be absolutely ignored from the highest levels."

She said she was drawn to Sachem because "it was the only group that appeared to be standing up in any way and making any noise and getting any attention."

Mrs. Bianculli-Dyber said her group was considering a name change replacing "Sachem" with "Long Island" to reflect its wider reach. That would be fine with James Ruck, superintendent of the Sachem School District, who stressed that the district was in no way connected to the Sachem group. "Although they are entitled to their opinion, we don't necessarily want those opinions associated with the school district," he said.

Mr. Tonna, the county legislator, said he wasn't surprised that people from other communities have joined Sachem but said he hoped it was not a sign that the group was growing into an Islandwide movement. "Sachem has some real and legitimate concerns," he said. "But unfortunately they're misguided in their energy and their direction."

Members of the group have picketed Mr. Tonna's home and called him a Benedict Arnold and a papist for supporting Roman Catholic groups that advocate for illegal immigrants. He looked to history for guidance on where the situation might be headed next.

"Throughout the history of this country, there have always been people afraid of change and who have targeted new immigrants," he said. "It's been a consequence of being a melting pot nation. And if history shows us anything, it's that with the process of acculturation, things somehow generally get worked out in the end."