Illegal aliens in Brewster

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.

Jimenez stayed

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,"

he told

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

past them.

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

many people.

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

would dissipate.

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.

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6 Responses to Illegal aliens in Brewster

  1. john t unger says:

    “it’s hard to chase the American Dream when the American Dream is busy chasing you.”

    Damn, that’s a nice line, Felix. Brilliant. I’ll be quoting it pretty much forever.

  2. Stefan says:

    You can be so polite and reasoned when you want to:-)

  3. Sean says:

    I must say it is very well versed and quite good at tugging the heart strings, but I find several point in there to be complete conjecture based on viewing this through a wsterner’s eyes. To say that they live in “rough conditions” is agreeable, if you or I were forced to live that way. But when these conditions, no matter how lowered from our standards they may be, are generally an improvement from the conditions they came from, so from another point of view, they are not rough at all, but they are just as they should be. So, why should we expect that they would jump at the chance to change if they could, when they are actually quite comfortable the way they are? I’ll leave it to that one comment for this post:-)

  4. Paul says:

    Your concern for the illicits who possibly faced deportation for playing soccer misses the point. They were here illegally, and for that they could and should be deported.

    Previous waves of immigrants came here at the invitation of our government. Labor was needed in a developing and expanding country. They came here and freely assimilated to our way of life and culture. The current group is breaking in the back door uninvited, costing billions of dollars each year to maintain (taxes, education, free health care, law enforcement expenses not to mention taking money from our economy while paying little in the way of taxes) with only the rich benefitting from the cheap labor their presence affords.

    They demand special treatment and special accomodations. There is a reason we have immigration laws. They are to protect us. They need to be rigidly enforced.

  5. Jen says:

    When my family came here from Hungary they wanted to be here so bad that they learned the language and decided to work hard to become legal citizens. The problem here is some imigrants are not proud to be here, they are not calling this their country. They are not learning the English language. They are taking jobs from legal residents that do not have jobs, because they WILL work for a lower wage. I worked with a Dominican man and asked him if he would fix the American flag that was caught and twisted as I could’nt reach it, he said to me its not my flag. this is a problem. It does’nt matter how anyone tries to sugarcoat it.

  6. Anonymous says:

    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

    deflection at it’s best. from a racist reporter.

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