- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

Opinions about illegal aliens were heated on both sides of the issue when business, community and civic leaders spoke out at a forum on the topic yesterday at The Washington Times.

The spirited discussion, moderated by WTOP Radio anchor Ira Mellman, touched on enforcement of immigration laws, education, gang violence, day-laborer centers and health care, and it left some of the 60 participants so worked up they had to step outside to cool down.

A six-member panel of regional leaders agreed that illegal entry negatively affects U.S.-born citizens and legal immigrants, but they agreed on little else.

“Illegal immigration is a problem because it has grown out of proportion,” said Gustavo Velasquez, director of the D.C. Office on Latino Affairs. “We have been dragged into an emotional, ideological and political debate forcing people to decide for extreme sides of the issue.”

Mr. Mellman scrambled to maintain order as the audience booed some of the panelists when they called for comprehensive federal reform that curbs illegal entry while acknowledging the economy’s need for labor.

“Immigrants that have broken the law should be penalized,” said panelist Eugenio Arene, executive director of the Council of Latino Agencies. “But the economy has benefited so much from them. How much will it cost to deport the 11 million [illegal aliens]?”

Steve Camarota, director of the District-based Center for Immigration Studies, said local police agencies have “taken the easy way out” by failing to enforce federal immigration laws.

He criticized the District’s policy of forbidding police from questioning detainees about their immigration status.

“States and local jurisdictions have a choice,” he said. “They can either work to buttress immigration laws or they can work to undermine it. If you give [illegal aliens] a place to conduct illegal activity, that’s undermining it.”

However, several panelists said it is the responsibility of the federal government to enforce federal immigration laws.

“The federal government is not putting appropriate resources on the borders,” said Dennis Husch, a member of the Herndon Town Council, where controversy erupted last summer over the town’s recently opened, taxpayer-funded day laborer center. “It’s unfair to ask local officials, who are essentially volunteers, to address public policy.”

Mr. Husch defended Herndon’s land-use agreement with the nonprofit group that runs the day-laborer center. He acknowledged that “selective” enforcement of laws might make the town appear lax and encourage illegal aliens and criminals to break laws.

Mr. Velasquez said local jurisdictions should focus on ensuring the safety of all taxpayers, some of whom may be here illegally. “Ask anyone. Who wants a child to not be vaccinated” because he or she is illegal? he asked. It is municipalities’ job to “strike a balance in local jurisdictions so you continue to protect residents.”

Panelist SteveHunt, at-large member of the Fairfax County School Board, said he has seen a “huge increase” in gang activity because members in illegal alien communities are afraid that working with police might somehow result in their own deportation.

“Kids with great potential are recruited at the elementary school level,” Mr. Hunt said. “This is something the school system has to be more on the more responsive side of [but] you can’t look to the school system to fix illegal immigration.”

The forum, part of The Washington Times Corp.’s monthly Citizens Forum Project covering regional issues, was the most “spirited” one yet, said forum director Brian Bauman.

“This one was far more in-depth than other forums,” Mr. Bauman said.

“There was a very energetic and lively discussion.”

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