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Cordial Talk On A Hot-Button Issue

Mayors With Opposing Views Find Common Ground In Their Low Opinion Of Current Immigration Policy

By MARK SPENCER, Courant Staff Writer

March 13, 2008

Despite the fact that Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. have taken polar positions in dealing with illegal immigration in their cities, the two men were chummy Wednesday at a forum on the issue.

They agreed, for example, that the federal government has made a mess of immigration policy. Although there were disagreements, many were more nuanced than stark.

But such cordial discourse can be hard to come by in the hot-button issue of immigration, a point DeStefano returned to repeatedly throughout the Key Issues Forum at the Mark Twain House and Museum auditorium in Hartford.

DeStefano said some people who back a get-tough approach to illegal immigration use "fears, ignorance and prejudices," often aimed at Spanish-speaking immigrants, to promote their views.

"America can't both be a great nation and a racist nation," he said.

Boughton said many on the far right were "racists and xenophobes," while those on the far left denied there was any problem with having an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country. Those in the middle should not be demonized for having genuine concerns about the cultural and economic changes evolving around them, he said.

Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow with the conservative Manhattan Institute, said the 60 percent of Americans in the middle were "scared, anxious and troubled" by the consequences of illegal immigration, but tended to be practical about solutions, such as supporting a path to citizenship.

DeStefano, a liberal Democrat, and Boughton, a moderate Republican, have both drawn national attention and the heat that comes with it for policies they have championed in their cities.

In June, New Haven became the first city in the country to offer a municipal identification card to all its residents, including the undocumented. In February, Danbury became the first city in the state to authorize some of its police officers to enforce federal immigration law.

Although both mayors alluded to those decisions, much of the conversation sounded more like testimony in a congressional hearing on immigration reform.

Jacoby described current immigration policy as a "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" approach that implicitly acknowledged the need for immigrant labor, while failing to provide a way for it to get here legally.

Americans have become too educated to take many of the new jobs being created, forcing employers to choose between improving their businesses or obeying the law by refusing to hire illegal immigrants.

"The law is crazy," she said. "The law is out of sync with our need to be a strong, vibrant country."

Boughton extolled the virtues of immigration, but said it needed to be legal, rather than an "unregulated, unmitigated flow of people," that stresses local services and drives down wages.

"Wages get so depressed that Americans say, 'I'm not doing that for that price,'" Boughton said.

DeStefano said immigrants bring an entrepreneurial spirit to the country and benefit their communities despite the fact that federal immigration policy has often been tinged by racism.

"We are living off the hard work and good will of these people, but have assigned them to be second-class citizens," he said.

Despite the passions the debate over illegal immigration can generate, it appears it won't play as prominent a role in the 2008 presidential race as once was expected. DeStefano said it had been shaping up as a wedge issue in the race, similar to gay marriage in the 2004 campaign.

But the three remaining major candidates all support immigration reform, including some kind of path to legality, while candidates who wanted a tougher approach never gained traction.

"I think the fever has kind of broken," Jacoby said.

About two dozen immigration activists demonstrated outside the Twain House on Farmington Avenue before the forum, demanding an end to immigration raids by federal agents.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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