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Legal Immigrants Alarmed by Debate: A Poll Found They See Undocumented Workers as Helping the Economy

Philadelphia Inquirer, News Report, Gaiutra Bahadur Posted: Mar 29, 2006

Mar. 29--The majority of the nation's 26 million legal immigrants are alarmed by the tone and substance of debate over changes in immigration law and feel that anti-immigrant sentiment is rising in the United States, according to a poll released yesterday.

Respondents overwhelmingly believe that undocumented workers help the economy and should be allowed to become legal residents and, ultimately, citizens. They blame what they see as a wave of anti-immigrant feeling on racism toward Latinos and Asians.

Results of the survey, the first to gauge attitudes of legal residents not born in the United States, came as the Senate prepared to debate the most dramatic overhaul of immigration policy and enforcement in decades.

Proposed Senate legislation would allow the country's 12 million undocumented residents to become legal guest workers on a path to citizenship. A House bill, passed in December and considered draconian by immigrant advocates, would erect a 700-mile steel wall along the Mexican border and bring felony charges against undocumented immigrants and any groups, including churches, assisting them.

The House provisions "to a large degree reflect the mood of the country," said Pawel Hitczenko, 47, of Cherry Hill, who told pollsters that he sensed increased animosity toward immigrants. "I don't think criminalizing immigrants or fencing this country off is the way to go."

The Drexel math professor, who moved from Poland in 1988, was among 800 legal immigrants from 43 countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe interviewed in random phone calls between Feb. 24 and March 21.

The poll was commissioned by New America Media, a San Francisco-based coalition of more than 2,000 ethnic media outlets, and cosponsorsthe Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning research group, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The groups back guest-worker proposals that would lead to citizenship.

Legal immigrants believe that the immigration debate "hurts people who speak with an accent," said Sergio Bendixen of the polling firm Bendixen & Associates. "They feel it is hurting their families and impacting their quality of life, and is fueled by racism."

Bendixen said the current disquiet reminded him of the mood in California after passage of Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot measure that denied illegal immigrants benefits and created an anti-Republican backlash among legal-immigrant voters.

In handling immigration issues, both political parties, Congress, and the White House received low ratings, though the Republicans fared worst. Only 22 percent of respondents said the party was doing a good job.

"They are disappointed in the political leadership and the way they have handled the debate," Bendixen said.

Sixty-one percent of those interviewed are U.S. citizens, Bendixen said. Of those, 77 percent are registered voters. The numbers reflect the country's legal immigrant population, he said.

Nearly three-quarters of the participants said they believe illegal workers help the economy by providing low-cost labor.

"They do what we don't want to do," said Mohamed Elhetami, a machine programmer for an aerospace company who emigrated from Egypt in 1978 and lives in Feasterville.

Some politicians opposed to programs that would legalize immigrants argue that they are unfair to those already in the labyrinthine process to enter the country lawfully. That contention was countered by views in the findings.

Ramesh Nehra, 55, a software developer from Mount Laurel and a poll participant, said he knew many people in India, his birthplace, who have waited years.

Still, he said, the country should legalize low-skilled workers who provide needed labor.

"I understand what they're going through," Nehra said. "I also understand they're doing jobs other Americans can't do."

Despite the poll's findings, not every legal immigrant believes that undocumented workers are a boon to the economy.

Nelson Batycki, who was not interviewed for the survey, said undocumented workers threaten the mom-and-pop construction company started by his father, a Ukrainian Jew who came to the United States in 1961 after a decade in Brazil.

Batycki, of Northeast Philadelphia, who came to this country when he was 6, believes firms employing illegal workers at nonunion wages have an unfair advantage. "I can't compete," he said.

Two-thirds of the respondents oppose stiff penalties proposed by the House for employers who hire unauthorized immigrants.

Contact staff writer Gaiutra Bahadur at 215-854-2601 or bahadug@phillynews.com.

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