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`Workers, Go Home!' (the Anti-Immigrant Movement)

By Ostendorf, David L. | The Christian Century, December 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

`Workers, Go Home!' (the Anti-Immigrant Movement)

Ostendorf, David L., The Christian Century

A RIVERHEAD, NEW YORK, jury has sentenced 29-year-old Christopher Slavin to 25 years in prison for attempted murder and assault. Last fall Slavin and Ryan Wagner (who will soon be tried on the same charges) posed as labor contractors in Farmingville, Long Island, "hired" Mexican day laborers Israel Perez and Magdaleno Estrada Escamilla, then took them to an abandoned warehouse and attacked them with a shovel, a post-hole digger and a knife.

The actions of Slavin, who is bedecked from neck to ankle with racist tattoos, have raised the specter of organized racist activity on Long Island, and made Farmingville the epicenter of a growing anti-immigrant movement.

Each day, hundreds of predominantly Hispanic workers gather in these communities to wait for labor contractors who drive up and hire them. Residents complained about the crowds and traffic at these sites, and their complaints fanned anti-immigrant rhetoric and focused anger on the "illegals" who allegedly comprise the workforce. Stirred by unfounded rumors of increased criminal activity, some residents determined to preserve their "quality of life." After becoming involved with national groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), they organized a local group, Sachem Quality of Life (SQL).

When bigotry and racial tensions simmer, intimidation and violence escalate. Anti-Catholic rhetoric is flourishing in Farmingville, with everyone from the pope to Catholic Charities blamed for the growing immigrant workforce. Two staff members of area Catholic parishes, women who have helped seek resolution of the community conflict, were threatened in person and on the phone. In a 12-month period between June 1999 and June 2000, at least six incidents of assault on immigrants were reported. Meanwhile white supremacist groups took advantage of the conflict by distributing flyers in the area.

One of the SQL leaders describes immigrant workers as an "invasion" force occupying his community and calls for the military "removal" of immigrants. When immigrant and civil rights organizations met in Long Island, he responded by saying that "the gunfight at the OK Corral is going to take place." With its ties to FAIR, the leading voice of the anti-immigrant movement in the U.S., and to American Patrol, the California-based white nationalist vigilante group, SQL has attracted considerable national attention. Nationally known speakers and leaders from all of these groups gathered on Long Island recently to rally support at a "Day of Truth."

Meanwhile another local group, Brookhaven Citizens for Peaceful Solutions, has renewed its efforts to build an even stronger coalition of religious, civic, business and labor organizations. Bolstered by a rally that drew 2,000 people in support of immigrants, the group has become increasingly vocal and effective.

Brookhaven Citizens organized to press the Suffolk County legislature to provide $80,000 in public funding for a hiring site where workers could gather off the streets. The solution was deemed treason by some opponents, and the legislation was vetoed by the county executive. Brookhaven Citizens could not muster additional votes, and by the time the veto override came to a vote in April, Sachem Quality of Life had convinced several supporters of the legislation to switch their votes. But local coalition, community and day worker leaders, along with immigrant and civil rights groups, rallied at a midsummer gathering and galvanized the Brookhaven group's resolve. The day laborers themselves are organizing, with the support of the Long Island-based Workplace Project and the emerging National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

Area churches have not escaped the controversy. Several Catholic parishes are polarized, with parishioners on both sides of the issue and SQL leaders in their pews. Parish staff, however, have been staunch in their efforts to support immigrant workers--even in the face of threats--and are teaching Catholic social doctrine and leading the parishes and the larger community to new commitments on the issues.

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