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Immigrants, Labor, and the Law


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The House and the Senate are currently holding hearings on federal immigration policy, and they've passed very different bills, each of which would have major repercussions, both on the economy and on the lives of the twelve million illegal immigrants who live in the United States. And no city would be as profoundly affected by a change in U.S. immigration policy as New York, which is home to an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants.

Leonardo, Lupe, and Emma are Mexican immigrants who came to the United States by illegally crossing the border. They live in the community of Port Richmond, a small historic neighborhood on the North Shore of Staten Island, which over the past decade has been revitalized by a massive influx of Mexican immigrants.

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Reverend Terry Troia, who runs an organization for day laborers in the community, grew up in the area in the 1950s. "The first department store in Staten Island opened up on Port Richmond Avenue," she recalls. "Port Richmond Avenue is where you went to shop for your lingerie, your school uniforms...the five and dime stores." But in the 1970s, the neighborhood started to deteriorate. "Store fronts became empty, and...there was a rapid deterioration of any kind of community life there."

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Then in the mid-90s, Mexican immigrants started settling into the neighborhood. "Now you are hard pressed to find an empty store front in Port Richmond. It's kind of a recreation of the commercial district that existed from 50 years ago."

Like many undocumented men in the community, Leonardo works as a day laborer, and at 6:30 each morning he can be found standing on Port Richmond Avenue hoping to be hired for the day and brought to construction sites in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. Lupe, along with two of his sons, mows lawns for a living. Emma cleans houses a few days a week. All three talk about the dire poverty that exists in Mexico, and the powerful financial incentives that brought them to New York. Lupe and Emma also reflect on how their legal status has made it nearly impossible to climb the economic ladder in the same way that generations of U.S. immigrants have.

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Next, Rafael Pi Roman sits down with world-renowned Columbia University Economist Jagdish Bhagwati to discuss the politics and economics of immigration. Bhagwati believes that immigration is the main factor that sets the U.S. economy apart. "Everybody can reproduce venture capital, but you can't reproduce the advantage the United States has. And there is nothing unique about us except our immigration."

Bhagwati also makes a case for maintaining the status quo: he fears that given the political climate, any change to federal immigration policy would likely make it harder for foreigners to enter the United States.

Original airdate: July 14, 2006

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The Mexicans of Port Richmond: The story of Lupe, Emma, Leonardo, and a Staten Island community of mostly undocumented Mexican immigrants.View this story
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View this storyInterview with Jagdish Bhagwati: Rafael Pi Roman sits down with the Columbia University economist to discuss the politics and economics of immigration.
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