Despite so few immigrants here, legal or illegal, opposition is fierce
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By any measure, the Pittsburgh region isn't attracting significant numbers of immigrants -- legal or illegal. But that doesn't mean Pittsburghers have no opinion on one of the most controversial national issues of the day.
"Everywhere I go, every meeting like this, that's the first question that's asked," U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, told a packed room at the Shaler municipal building Wednesday night. "In every town I visit, when I go to the street corner, somebody's going to come up to me and ask, 'What do you think about this immigration bill?' "
The bill, which Congress will take up again this week, would create a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. And Mr. Altmire doesn't like it.
Neither do the dozens of people who contact his office every day. When a bipartisan group of senators, including Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, announced their compromise legislation on May 17, Mr. Altmire's office received 200 calls. All were against the proposal.
Many people share the concerns of Joseph Drago, 61, of Shaler.
"I'm the son and a grandson of an immigrant. They were legal. They came through the system. They worked hard, not under the cover of darkness or in the back of a kitchen, but out in the open," Mr. Drago told the congressman. "I just want to know -- what can we do to stop this bill?"
A century ago, Pittsburgh was teeming with immigrants. In 1910, more than 26 percent of its inhabitants came from outside of the United States, as factory owners actively recruited foreign workers to feed the needs of a booming industrial economy.
Although non-Europeans faced strict limitations, few bureaucratic obstacles blocked the hundreds of thousands of European immigrants who entered the country every year.
Many were reluctant to assimilate in their new country, just like today's immigrants, according to Dr. Alan M. Kraut, a professor of history at American University who specializes in immigration.
"Every group tries to maintain its language and its identity as it negotiates its way in American life," he said.
The U.S. immigration system now is a labyrinth of restrictions and red tape. Most newcomers are from Latin America and Asia, not Europe. And very few are settling in Western Pennsylvania.
From 2000 to 2006, less than 16,000 international immigrants moved to the region, putting Pittsburgh in last place among the country's 25 largest metropolitan areas. Overall, the seven-county area that makes up greater Pittsburgh -- Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland -- lost more people than any other region in the country except New Orleans.
About 2.6 percent of Mr. Altmire's 4th Congressional District, which stretches from Murrysville in the southeast to Farrell, Mercer County, in the northwest, is foreign-born. Less than 1 percent is Hispanic or Latino.
Of the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, as many as 175,000 are in Pennsylvania, according to a 2006 survey from the Pew Hispanic Center. But most are likely concentrated in the eastern part of the state.
"They're not here," said Christopher Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh who analyzes population trends.
On Wednesday, city police found six undocumented workers from Honduras and El Salvador in a trailer on the Parkway West, prompting Mr. Altmire to describe the issue as "close to home." But a similar incident in many other cities would attract little or no attention.
Still, it's an issue that all Americans should care about, argues John Keeley, communications director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for less immigration.
"The house next door to you doesn't have to be on fire for you to contact your congressman and say we need to do something," Mr. Keeley said. "I don't think any community is immune from the debate anymore."
Legislator takes lead
One of Western Pennsylvania's loudest voices in the debate is state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, who last month launched State Legislators for Legal Immigration, a national group that includes lawmakers from 24 other states. Its goal is to push undocumented immigrants out of the country by cutting off their employment prospects.
Mr. Metcalfe is also pushing a package of bills in Harrisburg called National Security Begins at Home. The legislation would force employers to check the Social Security numbers of all workers on a federal database or risk losing their business licenses. It would also empower state police to enforce the nation's immigration and customs laws and eliminate any public benefits for undocumented immigrants, except in medical emergencies.
Mr. Metcalfe, a staunch social and fiscal conservative, has a unique perspective on immigration. As a specialist in the Army in the 1980s, he defended another border, the border between East and West Germany.
It was during that stint that he met his wife, Elke, a German who became a U.S. citizen only three years ago. Her path to citizenship entailed seemingly unending paperwork, but it instilled a belief in following the rules.
"My wife's passion probably exceeds mine," Mr. Metcalfe said in an interview.
His own rhetoric can seem harsh. Yet he always speaks in a calm tone.
"It is an important issue for all patriotic Americans that our country is secure and that our taxpayers are protected from an illegal alien invasion," he said. "I think it is impractical to say we're going to deport 12 million people. What I do think is practical is that the border can be secured. And if we shut off the economic opportunities, the illegal jobs and the illegal benefits, then they will have no choice but to go home on their own."
Some of the lawmaker's claims are disputable. He and his allies in the state Legislature blame an increase in crime on immigrants. Yet, in 2000, native-born American men between the ages of 18 and 39 were imprisoned at five times the rate of foreign-born men in the same age group, according to a new study from Immigration Policy Center.
"The problem of crime in the United States is not 'caused' or even aggravated by immigrants, regardless of their legal status," write Ruben G. Rumbaut and Walter A. Ewing, the study's authors. "But the misperception that the opposite is true persists among policymakers, the media and the general public."
Undocumented immigrants already are ineligible for most state and federal benefits, and health care spending for immigrants is nearly half of that for native-born Americans. Undocumented workers also pay billions of dollars in income and sales taxes every year. The Social Security Administration reports that it has collected $420 billion from immigrants who can't claim any benefits in the future.
But porous borders and a broken immigration system still represent a serious crisis in need of immediate attention.
"It's a great national concern about observing the rule of law," said Mr. Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It's also a great concern to businesses across Pennsylvania, the senator said. Restaurants, hotels and landscapers have all contacted him, including Dan Eichenlaub, who owns a profitable landscaping business in Indiana Township.
Unable to find enough workers from the Pittsburgh region, he supplements his 50-person work force with foreign labor in the summer months. A six-week delay in getting five workers from Jamaica this year cost him as much as $70,000.
Mr. Eichenlaub said his business has the potential to double in size in five years.
"The biggest thing that will limit my growth is access to workers," he said. "Am I going to get a work force in a timely manner?"
Mr. Specter was a key member of the group that crafted the Senate's so-called "grand bargain" on immigration in May. It includes a significant expansion in border security, a guest-worker program and the creation of a complicated point system that would favor new immigrants with job skills and an ability to speak English over those with family ties.
Is it amnesty?
The bill's most controversial component would allow any undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before Jan. 1 to gain legal status by paying $5,000 in fees and demonstrating that they don't have criminal records. They also must complete a brief "touchback" trip in their home countries.
Despite the severe financial penalties, critics deride the bill as "amnesty," a word that evokes powerful emotions on all sides of the immigration issue.
The polling firm Strategic Vision last year found that 80 percent of Pennsylvanians disapprove of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Yet the bill's supporters, including President Bush, bristle at such a characterization.
"If you want to scare the American people, what you say is, the bill is an amnesty bill," he said at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., last week. "It's not an amnesty bill. That's empty political rhetoric, trying to frighten our fellow citizens. People in Congress need the courage to go back to their districts and explain exactly what this bill is all about, in order to put comprehensive immigration reform in place."
Mr. Altmire does call the bill "amnesty," even though he acknowledges that the word has become a political football. He says he won't support the Senate bill. Nor will another Western Pennsylvanian, Rep. Phil English, from Erie.
Even if the bill passes the Senate, opposition from moderate lawmakers in the House like Mr. Altmire and Mr. English could doom its chances.
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, whose district includes the city of Pittsburgh, hasn't taken a position. He says he's received fewer calls on the issue.
At the start of Mr. Altmire's town hall meeting last week, Sister Janice Vanderneck pleaded with the congressman and his constituents not to use terms such as "illegal" or "alien" to describe immigrants.
"Those are political flash words," said Sister Janice, director of social service ministry at the Latino Catholic Community, a diocesan-sponsored center in Oakland. "There is a very, very human face on this population."
"Illegals!" shouted several attendees at the meeting. "They're illegals!"
As Sister Janice spoke, Marc Fontenot, of Murrysville, banged on a table.
He later told the congressman that his brother's construction business in Louisiana failed because of fierce competition from firms that relied on undocumented workers.
He and others all emphasized that they supported legal immigration.
"I have nothing against Latino people," said Mr. Drago, the descendant of Italian immigrants. "It's not a racial issue or an ethnic issue for me. It's the future of America."
Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Officer Tom Jacques writes violations after pulling aside a truck and trailer off the Parkway West on Thursday. Six of the eight men in the truck were undocumented immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras who were employed by a Verizon Inc. subcontractor laying fiber optic cable.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published June 2, 2007 9:54 pm