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April 25, 2001

Our Towns: Laborers Wanted (Sometimes)

N.Y. Times

FARMINGVILLE, N.Y. - With spring in bloom, the grass growing and yards needing tending, the country's commitment-averse, seasonal romance with day laborers is back where it left off: Can't live with them, can't landscape without them.

Hector Vlasco has felt both ends of the equation. Every morning, as he stands outside a fried chicken joint with dozens of other immigrant laborers, the promise of America comes rolling along in the form of contractors driving by to offer a day's work for far more than he could make in his native El Salvador.

But he has felt the rougher edge, most recently a few weeks ago when some people pulled up while he was waiting for a bus home after work. "They came by in a car and said: `You Spanish. Go back where you came from,' " he said, repeating a string of curses he said had been spewed at him.

The welcome wagon has been traveling Farmingville for several years, bellowing these contradictory messages to the hundreds of immigrant laborers - many of them illegal immigrants from Mexico - who have found an uncomfortable home in this working-class Suffolk County town.

Like other communities around the country, Farmingville has become the servants' quarters for laborers who earn a living in wealthier suburbs. Farmingville has turned angry and divisive as it has tried to find its way in a swirl of such big forces as record immigration, low unemployment, sprawl and a shortage of cheap housing.

There is much concern about men waiting outside convenience stores for jobs and about houses jammed with laborers. Language has turned extreme, followed by threats of violence. Leaders of a civic group that denounces the men have linked arms with an outspoken critic of immigration in Los Angeles, Glenn Spencer, who said the fight here was important to counter the Latino plan "to take the whole Northern Hemisphere."

Last fall, two Mexican laborers were picked up here by men posing as contractors who then beat the workers, the police say. County legislators later approved $80,000 for a hiring center to move the workers off the streets and bring order to the daily job bazaar. But the county executive, Robert J. Gaffney, vetoed it, saying it would condone violating labor and immigration laws.

YESTERDAY the Legislature considered overriding the veto, putting Farmingville back at the center of the country's ambiguous relationship with illegal immigrants. Carlos Canales, once an illegal factory worker who is now an advocate for immigrants, was standing outside the session. If the laborers are such a problem, he said, "how come the government doesn't use its power to throw us away?" He thinks the answer is the need for cheap laborers who are beholden to employers. "That's business," he said.

The federal government says it lacks the resources to hunt down illegal workers beyond the most egregious cases. Yet granting widespread immigration amnesty is politically thorny. This legal limbo is seen by the most vitriolic critics as license to treat the immigrants as an infestation.

"We have a right to be angry," said Ray Wysolmierski of the Sachem Quality of Life Organization, which is leading the fight against the laborers. "If these guys are beaten up, they don't have a right to be angry. They don't have a right to be here." With the influx of immigrants, he said, "I'm paying taxes for a suburban life, but I'm dealing with de facto urbanization."

Others not in the group object with less emotion. John Kinsella, a bricklayer who came from Ireland nine years ago, said that as a hard-working immigrant, he was irked by reports that many of the laborers have no green cards and do not pay taxes. "If they came here and lived like everyone else, there would be no problem," he said.

Local officials are left to negotiate between the immigration laws they have no power to enforce or change and the health and safety of all the residents - new immigrants and immigrants' descendants alike - they are obligated to protect. Paul J. Tonna, the presiding officer of the Legislature, who supports the hiring-center proposal, compared it to another controversial question: "Do we give heroin addicts needles to prevent the spread of AIDS?"

The Legislature voted yesterday against financing the center. It was a victory to those who saw the center as fostering lawlessness. Others wondered.

"Is the status quo a victory?" asked Ed Hernandez, a Farmingville resident who heads a group called Citizens for Peaceful Solutions. "What is being won here today? As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, the streets of Farmingville will be filled with day laborers tomorrow."

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