By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
According to the National Immigration Law Center, "For over a century, the U.S. Supreme Court consistently has ruled that the federal government has broad and exclusive power to regulate immigration." But that hasn't stopped local governments from trying.
State Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart), who speaks Spanish and holds a master's degree in Latin American studies, has sponsored and promoted bills that would require the state to enforce immigration laws. One measure would require employers to use an "e-verify" system to prove that their workers are legal. Another would explicitly prohibit municipalities from opening centers like El Sol. (A similar center, called Buena Fe, opened in Loxahatchee Groves this spring based on the El Sol model, and another is planned for Lake Worth.) At presstime, it appeared that both bills would die before the end of the legislative session.
Other states are grappling with similar legislation. Some are placing the burden on landlords to check the immigration status of tenants. Oklahoma has made it a felony to shelter or transport illegal workers, and it allows citizens to sue employers if they believe they were let go in favor of an illegal immigrant. Arizona punishes businesses that hire illegal workers by revoking and suspending their business licenses. The governor of Maine recently signed an executive order requiring state police to enforce immigration laws. In some places, like Collier County, Florida, ICE has implemented a 287(g) program, which trains and authorizes local sheriff's deputies to enforce federal law. Under that program, local officers can check a worker's immigration status and initiate the deportation process.
Some cities — like San Francisco — have done the opposite, declaring themselves havens for illegal immigrants, going out of their way to welcome them in various languages and offer freedom from prosecution at schools and hospitals. Critics say that despite those cities' intentions, federal agents would still have the power to enforce the law wherever they choose.
At this point, protesters are ready to go beyond the sidewalk. John Parsons and Charlie Elliott traveled to Tallahassee on April 8 to speak during a hearing about the proposed legislation backed by Harrell.
Parsons recently mulled over the situation at El Sol. "I imagine there will be a lawsuit coming down the pike," he said, although FLIMEN currently has no intention of litigating. "Somebody's gotta challenge it."
That's the way protesters would like to see all the immigrants say adios. "It's called attrition through enforcement," says diver and former Marine Bob. You can forget about having to use taxpayer money to pay for buses, trains, and planes, he says. Once immigrants can't make any moolah here, they'll go back to where they came from.
It's a strategy that, in fact, may be working. The Inter-American Development Bank reported just last week that there has been a marked drop in the amount of money being sent by Latino immigrants back to their home countries in recent years as the economy and tough anti-immigration policies are taking hold.
Still, exhausting arguments about the financial costs or benefits of illegal workers continue. Anti-illegal-immigrant groups argue that the workers cost taxpayers billions of dollars, while proponents of easing immigration laws — notable among them former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan — say that immigrant workers build U.S. infrastructure and boost the economy.
An independent contractor named Russ Smozanek says that a legitimate employer would have to pay worker's compensation, liability insurance, and taxes to cover Social Security and Medicare. In addition, one would need to have paid for a business license and articles of incorporation. This could cost thousands of dollars, he says. Compare that with someone operating under the table, hiring an illegal worker for $7 or $10 an hour.
(One counterargument is that legitimate employers often do pay taxes and Social Security for workers — but undocumented ones can't collect the benefits because they are not eligible for Social Security cards.)
Robert Mergupis is a 48-year-old metal-stud framer who says he's been out of work for two years because he cannot compete with the low cost of illegal immigrant labor. "If my wife hadn't had a house deeded to her, we'd be homeless. People label me a bum, but I built all those single-family homes in the Bluffs. I'm protecting my life out here. I'm protecting you guys' families."
Mergupis attends a Catholic church. Of the Catholics' support of the day labor center, he says, "I feel they put a dagger in my heart."
One protester says: "I work at a grocery store. The immigrants get free milk — gallons and gallons. A lady has two kids and is pregnant and you see 'em put it in the back of their brand-new truck."
"Tuberculosis was just about cured 70 years ago; now it's coming back," says Jupiter resident Marianne Bonsignor. She explains that the immigration system was better a hundred years ago. "At Ellis Island, immigrants from Italy and Hungary would be shipped back if they had bad eyes. Only a certain quota was allowed." Criminal screening was better there too. "If they had a record back in Italy, they could check that." How? "You could go to any church. They've got it all written down in Latin. You could go see the priest and ask."