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Immigration debate shakes US to the core

April 30, 2010

From the deck of New York Harbor's tour boat the Statue of Liberty looks as welcoming today as when greeting new immigrants a century ago.

But the soaring figure and even loftier inscription -- "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" -- gets a wry look from passengers Yeni Benitez and Felipe Ramirez.

Benitez, freshly immigrated from Colombia, and her husband Ramirez know first hand the tensions roiling America in the wake of Arizona's tough new law against illegal immigration.

Ramirez, 28, was already a US citizen but says it took him almost a year and "a hundred layers of bureaucracy" to get his wife into the country, where she finally arrived Tuesday at New York's LaGuardia Airport.

"The irony of that statue," he said, looking over the choppy harbor below the skyscrapers of Manhattan, "is that those poor and huddled masses are exactly the people who they don't want to come."

If Arizona's controversial new controls are anything to go by, then foreigners could face an even chillier reception in a country constructed on immigration.

The law signed by Governor Jan Brewer last week criminalizes undocumented immigrants and gives police power to stop people on mere suspicion of being in the country illegally.

Brewer said this will reinforce existing laws in Arizona and guard against vicious Mexican drug gangs active along the southwestern state's border.

But the law instantly struck a national nerve, and with Republicans and Democrats already bitterly divided and Congressional mid-term elections approaching this November, the debate soon became passionate -- and nasty.

One writer on the leftwing Huffington Post website accused Arizona of conjuring "ghosts of southern neo-slavery," while supporters of the new law dismissed critics as shallow opportunists.

"There is plenty of cynicism involved: not on the part of the exasperated voters of Arizona, but rather from domestic political, religious, ideological, and ethnic interests that in patronizing fashion seek new dependent constituents," the arch-conservative National Review wrote.

President Barack Obama made more nuanced comments, referring to the pressing problem of a growing illegal immigrant population, but deploring the law's "polarizing" effect.

Some of the strongest criticism has come out of New York, an immigrant magnet where 60 percent of residents are foreign born, or children of foreign-born parents.

A group of Latino members in the New York state assembly is even planning to go and chain themselves to the US-Mexico border fence.

"We're willing to risk ourselves for the people of Arizona and other immigrants across the country," local lawmaker Felix Ortiz told Cityhallnews.com.

Nancy Foner, professor of sociology at Hunter College in New York, said the United States always had a love-hate affair with immigration.

"On the one hand America has welcomed immigrants in many ways, but on the other hand we have a history of nativism and xenophobia," she said. "Immigrants have not always been welcomed with open arms."

Heavy waves of immigration have regularly produced a backlash, whether against eastern and southern Europeans in the 1920s, or against Latinos today.

"There are always racial fears," Foner said. "With the Irish it was the anti-Catholic feeling, deep anti-Catholicism, and with Jews and Italians they were seen as inferior."

Polls show that 70 percent of voters nationwide and in the desert state itself support the Arizona measure.

But despite the furor, immigration remains at a high level with 12.5 percent of the country foreign-born, Foner stressed. Including the children of new arrivals, then almost a quarter of the population can be said to have immigrated.

Bobbing along on the official "Gateway to America Tour" boat, Benitez and Ramirez said they looked forward to their new life.

Benitez, 35, said her first priority was "to start a family and work" and to study history. America seemed "beautiful and immense," she said, speaking in Spanish, because her English remains poor.

But Ramirez, who has just completed a mathematics doctorate at the University of Michigan, said they were under no illusion that immigration is only about the romance embodied in the Statue of Liberty.

"I'm at a university, so I keep myself in pretty liberal circles, but there is a lot of xenophobia in the heartland, in the south," he said. "People have a weird view of foreigners."

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