by Patrick Smikle
(IPS) MIAMI --
welcome mat is
wearing out," read a recent headline in the Miami Herald,
the state's largest and most influential newspaper.
The paper was reporting on a survey conducted in collaboration with its sister publication, The St. Petersburg Times, on attitudes toward immigration and related matters such as the federal policy on Cuban refugees.
The poll found statewide support of 58 percent for curbs on legal immigration and even greater support for the federal government to do more to stop illegal immigration.
Respondents felt that Florida, one of six states where the bulk of immigrants tend to settle, bore more than its fare share of the cost of absorbing newcomers, the Herald reported.
While the anti-immigrant mood was strongest among white non-Hispanics, the paper said, the poll indicated that none of Florida's three major ethnic groups (whites, Hispanics and blacks) were "particularly enthusiastic over the level of legal immigration into the country."
"Only Hispanic Floridians support current levels of legal immigration, (about one million people a year), but by a bare majority of 51 percent," the paper said its poll showed.
TheMiami Herald noted that these results confirmed anti-immigrant trends detected by previous polls across the country, but implied surprise that so many Hispanics (more than 40 percent), many of whom were themselves immigrants, favored "making it more difficult" for others to come to the United States legally.
"It's like a ship that can take on only so many passengers before sinking. There has to be a limit. Not everyone can come here," the paper quoted a 68-year-old Cuban-exile as saying in a follow-up interview.
But those who deal with immigration issues on a day to day basis are not surprised.
"Immigrants discriminating against immigrants? That's not a new phenomenon," Jamaican-born attorney at Law, Marlon Hill, told IPS.
"We shouldn't be surprised," said Hill, who is vice president of the Caribbean Bar Association, a grouping of Florida-based attorneys that has been conducting a series of town hall meetings, at which CBA members give free legal advice to Caribbean immigrants.
Said Cheryl Little, Executive Director of the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center: "Unfortunately, oftentimes its easy to forget how important it was for you to be permitted to come to the United States."
"As time passes, its easier to focus on the problems that we see immigration creating rather than the need to be welcoming people who are fleeing persecution or who otherwise desperately need our help," she said.
The problems which respondents to the Miami Herald poll see immigration creating have to do with socio-economic issues like school overcrowding and competition in the labor market. There is also the notion that immigrants tend to subsist on government welfare benefits rather than working for a living.
"That's absolute baloney," said Little. "Immigrants contribute far more in taxes than they take in services and benefits. And that's well documented."
But she acknowledges that the view is widespread and helped fuel anti-immigrant legislation passed by Congress in 1996.
"Roughly 44 to 45 percent of the savings in the welfare law were at the expense of lawful permanent residents," she told IPS.
On the claim that competition from immigrants in the labor market was driving down wages, Little responded that "immigrants seem to take jobs other people don't want." Without immigrants, she said, "there would be a serious shortage of farm workers, of factory workers, of taxi drivers, of domestic workers."
The poll findings, while not surprising, is a point of worry for Prof. Anthony Bryan of the North-South Center at the University of Miami.
He said the Florida findings are reflective of the national sentiment and that the numbers of persons expressing anti-immigrant views would probably be higher had the survey been conducted in less favorable economic times.
The Trinidad-born political scientist speculates that Floridians could be responding negatively to the constant stream of Cuban refugees trying to reach Florida and to the disruptive demonstrations which have been staged by Cuban exiles in defence of these refugees.
SLUGWhile the poll found Floridians generally sympathetic to the economic difficulties faced by Cubans, it also found overwhelming support for the U.S. policy of repatriating would-be Cuban refugees intercepted at sea.
"Floridians are probably fed up with the boat flows," Prof.
Bryan told IPS. "Every time there's a crisis in Haiti or Cuba people get on boats largely bound for the U.S." But he noted that while Haitians were almost routinely repatriated, Cubans who made it to shore were almost automatically allowed residency.
Hill sees the anti-immigrant sentiment that the poll documents as "a wake-up call for Caribbean immigrants in the U.S."
"The view reflected in this poll is not something that should make us want to run scared," he said. "It's a reality of the environment that we live in."
Rather than worry about discrimination, he said, those Caribbean immigrants who qualify for U.S. citizenship should seek to expedite the process. "Get the citizenship by whatever legal means. Get the voter registration card. Find out who is your congressional representative. Exercise those rights that your status allows."
And based on Cheryl Little's assessment of the current situation, exercising Hill's advice is about to be made easier.
Little notes that presidential and other national elections are less than 12 months away. She, as well as other immigration attorneys interviewed by IPS, confirm that in election years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service always attempts to speed up citizenship applications.
"More and more immigrants have become citizens over the past few years," Little said. "That means they can vote. That means there's going to be sensitivity to immigrant issues."
December 12, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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