January 9 was an unseasonably warm day in Brewster, NY, a small town near the
Connecticut border. As on most days, a number of day-laborers gathered in the
village center, hoping for some kind of work, probably in construction. When
none appeared, eight of them stopped hanging around doing nothing, and decided
to take advantage of the weather to enjoy an impromptu game of football. The
site they chose for their game was, unfortunately for them, a playing field
belonging to Garden Street Elementary School, where another laborer had been
found drunk and unconscious three months previously. Before long, all eight
laborers were arrested for trespassing. Seven were released on bail, but the
eighth, Juan Jimenez, couldn’t raise the $3,000 bail money, partly because nearly
all his earnings had gone to support his five children in Guatemala.
in jail for four months, most of that time being held at the Pike County
jail in Lords Valley, Pa, a two-hour
drive from his home in Brewster and a place with precious few fellow Spanish
speakers. Eventually, on May 5, Jimenez opted to return to his native Guatemala,
rather than face deportation proceedings which would probably have barred him
from ever entering the USA again. For the crime of playing football on an elementary
school’s playing field, he spent four months in jail and was eventually forced
to leave the country. The judge in his case, Walter Durling, expressed no sympathy
for his plight: "He’s kicking a soccer ball as an illegal alien,"
lawyers asking for Jimenez’s release. "You gave it your best shot, but
I’m not going to release this person."
So "kicking a soccer ball as an illegal alien" has now become a deportable
offense, making life incredibly difficult for illegal immigrants in Brewster
and for the local police. Police are effective only insofar as the law-abiding
population trusts them, but if a crime is committed against an illegal immigrant,
at this point it would need to be extremely severe before that person called
the Brewster police. Effectively, the decision to report any illegal aliens
to the federal authorities has given impunity to anybody who would defraud or
otherwise harm illegal immigrants.
So far, this story sounds like the kind of woeful tale that has been doing
the rounds a lot during the latest resurgence of the immigration debate. The
New York Times wrote about the story a couple of times: columnist Peter Applebone
whether "a group of blond-haired local kids or dads taking a day off from
work would have been hauled off to jail for playing soccer," while reporter
Anahad O’Connor found
a substantial amount of support for Jimenez and his fellow soccer-players in the local
community. Five Brewster teenagers even held a bake sale to help raise the $3,000
bail money for Mr Jimenez, and others wrote letters to the local paper pointing
out that the playing fields were used for jogging and exercising all the time
by people who never face imprisonment.
At the same time, however, there’s no doubt that there’s also substantial opposition
to the day laborers in Brewster: O’Conner quoted Rachel McLaughlin, a mother
at the elementary school, saying that "my daughter is a first grader at
Garden Street, and I think it’s dangerous to have large groups of people loitering
in certain areas, especially if they are men."
As it happens, I spent last night in Brewster, staying with my friend Elly
and her fiancé Sean, in their lovely house just outside the village.
Brewster is a small, bucolic town in Putnam County, with rolling hills and clapboard
houses. In the vicinity there are more than a few new McMansions, but the feel
of the area is one of quiet gentility. And after talking to Sean, I’m beginning
to see the other side of the story, as well as a glimmer of hope for how the
day-laborer issue might be resolved.
This year’s political races are being more aggressively fought than usual in
the area, and Sean said that he was going to be voting for Greg
Ball. Ball is the only candidate, says Sean, who is really serious about
"cleaning up" Brewster.
By "cleaning up," of course, Sean didn’t mean ridding the sidewalks
of litter. Rather, he was talking about the Guatemalan day-laborers, who have
made the village of Brewster a much less pleasant place. Those who don’t find
work will stay in the town, and some of them will start drinking, and when they
do, they are prone to acting very unsociably towards any single women who walk
Sean told me that Ball wanted to hire more police for the village of Brewster:
the police at the moment were "outnumbered," he said, and felt incapable
of dealing with the public-order problem. If there were more police, I asked,
what would they do? Sean explained that loitering is a crime, and that if the
immigrants didn’t disperse from the Brewster sidewalks, the police could arrest
These immigrants, to hear Sean tell it, do not exactly have an enviable life.
They often sleep rough, and sometimes get burned to death when they fall asleep
or pass out too close to their fire. When they’re not sleeping rough, they often
live in incredibly crowded conditions in buildings never designed to house so
The townspeople, too, are unhappy, not least Sean himself. The way he tells
it, Brewster used to be a small yet bustling town, which was slowly and literally
invaded by aliens. The more that the community of illegal aliens in Brewster
grew, the less welcome people felt in town. One shopkeeper was quoted in the
New York Times as saying that sales had plunged 70% in two years after groups
of day laborers started congregating under her awning. Over the years, Brewster’s
shops and restaurants have closed down for lack of custom. A few new places
have taken their place, catering to the Latino community, but the overall effect
of the arrival of the aliens has been a visible deterioration in Brewster’s
vibrancy, along with an increase in public disorder and drunkeness.
The new Latino community, according to Sean, is not helping the local economy:
indeed, the opposite is the case. Since most of the new aliens are illegal immigrants
paid cash in hand, they pay few if any taxes. And there’s certainly a feeling
in town that things were much better before the aliens arrived.
There also seems to be a lack of sympathy among many people in Brewster towards
the plight of the aliens themselves: if they’re in Brewster illegally, seems
to be the feeling, the local community has little if any responsibility for
their well-being. But connected with that feeling seems to be the obvious corollary:
that if the aliens were legal, and paid taxes, a lot of the animus towards them
Sean, despite being engaged to an alien himself, was convinced that Brewster’s
aliens were illegal by choice. Sean was sure that there was some way that the
aliens could become permanent residents if they wanted to; their failure to
do so, in his eyes, was a function of their being more unwilling than unable
to navigate the relevant paperwork. I guess he reckoned that they thought that
if they became legal they would pay taxes and take home less money, so they
didn’t want to become legal. Of course, legal unskilled immigrants make a lot
more money than illegal unskilled immigrants, don’t need to worry about the
police, and have the opportunity to become skilled immigrants and make a lot
more money still – I’m sure that any of the Guatemalans in Brewster would
jump at the chance to apply for a green card were it offered to them. But I’m
also sure that Sean is far from atypical: one thing that I definitely learned
this weekend is that Americans are likely to vastly underestimate the difficulty
of getting a green card.
I looked for Greg Ball’s immigration
platform: it complains that in Brewster "hundreds of laborers gather
to be picked up for a day of tax-free income on most mornings". In other
words, there seems to be as much anger at the "tax-free income" part
as there is at the "hundreds of laborers" part. Ball continues:
The State of New York is losing close to 2 billion dollars in income taxes
per year to a black market economy that forces day laborers into indefinite
servitude. While hard working New Yorkers are being forced to pay an increasing
burden of taxes, close to 1 million illegal immigrants are living in the land
of plenty, tax-free.
Greg Ball released survey results Thursday indicating that 95% of respondents
support his plan to adopt, “state legislation to tax the day laborer
economy, thereby forcing illegal immigrants to pay a state income tax.”
I’m not quite sure how Greg Ball can reconcile the idea that day-laborers are
being forced into indefinite servitude with the idea that they are living in
the land of plenty. But in any case his platform is quite clear that illegal
immigrants should pay New York state income tax.
I think that’s a great idea. After all, Greg Ball loves
to talk about taxpayers’ rights, and so presumably the illegal immigrants
would get some kind of rights when they started paying income tax. What’s the
least that the government should do in return for income tax revenue? I’d start
with some kind of equal protection – a promise that all taxpayers have
the right to be protected, rather than threatened, by the police, and that if
they haven’t broken any New York state laws, then New York state law-enforcement
officials will not terrorise them by occasionally handing them over to the Feds.
(Something which, despite being reasonably common, is actually of dubious constitutionality
in the first place.)
This could be the beginnings of a solution, then. Let New York state recognise
and tax its day-laborers, and give them some road to legitimacy and legal residence.
If they’re allowed to do things like open a bank account, then they might stop
having to sleep in overcrowded flophouses. And if an employer finds them hardworking
and trustworthy, as by all accounts Juan Jimenez was, then there should be some
way of allowing them to take a fully-taxed job. At that point they can start
chasing the American Dream along with all the other residents of Brewster. But
as things stand, it’s hard to chase the American Dream when the American Dream
is busy chasing you.
I did learn in Brewster that there are two legitimate sides to the immigration
debate. I’m vehemently pro-immigration and pro-immigrant; I live in a city (New
York) which is home to the Statue of Liberty ("give me your tired, your
poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"), which has always
welcomed immigrants, and which would grind to a halt overnight were it not for
the work that immigrants both legal and illegal do to keep it running.
And yet America is not New York, and there are certainly places in America
which have a much more problematic relationship with immigrants in general and
illegal immigrants in particular. It is too simplistic and narrow-minded by
far to simply dismiss the complaints of people like Sean as knee-jerk racism,
and in fact I do not for a minute believe that Sean is the slightest bit xenophobic.
But the heat generated by the immigrant debate in Brewster has certainly adversely
affected race relations there: Yolanda Castro-Arce, a lawyer of Puerto Rican
background, told the New York Times that she was the target of racial remarks
every time she walked along Main Street. The article concludes with this:
"I think you either need to make these people citizens and give them
the American dream, or you need to start enforcing the laws that are already
on the books," Ms. McLaughlin said. "It’s not a race issue, it’s
a legal issue."
Yet where one resident sees legalities, another may see racism. Ms. Castro-Arce
and her husband, also a lawyer, decided the incident at the ball field last
month was the final straw: they put their house on the market and are now
looking for a home in Westchester.
"I tell my husband all the time that coming here was a big mistake,"
she said. "I talk to other people about what we’ve encountered here all
the time, and they can’t believe it."
It seems to me that the only real hope for the future is to take Rachel McLaughlin’s
advice and "make these people citizens" somehow. So long as they’re
illegal they can never come close to assimilating, and the feelings arrayed
against them will inevitably spill over onto American citizens like Yolanda
Castro-Arce. I’m sure that my friend Sean, as well as would-be Assemblyman Greg
Ball, want Brewster to be as welcoming as possible to Americans of all races.
And throwing a lot of Latinos in jail is never going to achieve that goal.