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Vol. LXII, No. 48
 
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
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Impact of Latino Immigration on Economy Subject of Chamber of Commerce Lecture

Dilshanie Perera

Princeton University visiting professor David Abalos spoke to the Regional Chamber of Commerce last Wednesday about the economic impact of Latino immigration on the area. Advocating for more humane policies, Mr. Abalos urged compassion toward undocumented — and indeed all — people, saying, “At our best, ours is a story of democracy where everybody is sacred and everyone is equal.”

“There is no question in my mind that Latino immigrants are part of the economic fabric of this country and this region,” Mr. Abalos said, adding that “the majority of Latinos here are from Guatemala and Mexico.”

Noting that his own parents emigrated from Mexico in the 1920s, Mr. Abalos recalled some of the hardships they encountered, acknowledging that he “came from very humble roots.” While his father “cut hair and sold apples” and his mother “bought a house and rented it out,” many present day Latino immigrants in the Princeton area, he observed, work in the restaurant, landscaping, and housekeeping industries.

“People have been coming here from Latin America going back to the 1980s,” Mr. Abalos pointed out, citing civil unrest and political tumult as reasons for migration, while adding that “the most recent groups have come because the economies in their home countries have collapsed.”

In responding to a question about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mr. Abalos said that “a lot of people feel that NAFTA is more of a benefit for the U.S.” and noted that of the 30 million people in Mexico involved in the farming and production of corn, many lost their jobs as a result of cheaper American corn flooding the Mexican markets. “Some of that unemployment is directly related to people coming here.”

While immigrants face practical problems involving access to transportation and adequate housing, Mr. Abalos suggested they also must contend with some deeply historical problems like discrimination based on race and class. “When we first got here, we were turned into people who were invisible. We were not only cheap labor, but also had to accept our inferiority,” he said.

Calling that the “story of tribalism and capitalism,” Mr. Abalos acknowledged that American history simultaneously shows “the story of democracy and compassion,” and urged everyone to live and enact the latter story.

Noting that 86 percent of undocumented workers pay taxes, and “are never going to see that social security,” Mr. Abalos assured those present that if undocumented immigrants returned to their countries of origin, “all the businesses in the region would collapse.”

Mr. Abalos added that, regardless of their politics, “I tell my students: do not become an elitist and abandon one’s own community, but rather, become a human being.”

Lawyer and Borough Council member Roger Martindell said that illegal diversion of wages by employers from service workers, many of whom are Latino, is a “continuing problem” in the region. Instances of diverting wages that are relatively common include failure to pay overtime when an employee works more than 40 hours per week, as well as failure to pay the worker’s last paycheck when the worker quits, is injured, or fired by the employer, he said.

“There is a landscaping firm with offices in Kingston, which hires Latino workers for a week or two at a time and then fails to pay them,” Mr. Martindell said of a recent case.

If an employee is not paid for work done, he or she may go to the State Department of Labor and file a complaint, or go to an attorney, Mr. Martindell noted.

While Mr. Abalos had mentioned that he was “delighted by our police officers” in their respect and treatment of immigrants, Mr. Martindell pointed out that in DUI stops, or in the case of an indictable offense, police officers in New Jersey may ask about immigration status.

One example showing “that the immigration system is broken, and that it treats cases insensitively without regard for the consequences,” Mr. Martindell elaborated upon was the case of a Princeton resident (“one of the stable pillars of the community”), who never received the court summons for an immigration hearing, and happened to be pulled over by police 15 years later for a minor vehicle infraction. After it was discovered that a warrant was out for the man’s arrest, he was subsequently deported to Mexico.

“Just to summarily take somebody out of their family, community, and business and repatriate them is hugely disruptive,” Mr. Martindell said. “There is no winner in such a situation.”

 

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