Political Tensions over immigration

By Harvey Havel, Photographs by Christolin Michel

August 9, 2019

“I’m watching what’s happening to these children, and it is just evil,” said Linda LeTendre, a semi-retired, licensed state social worker who describes herself as a “Gospel Activist” from Saratoga Springs.

Her companions were Linda Paga´n, who is originally from New York City and has been a Capital District resident for nearly 35 years, and her daughter, Elizabeth Barnes, who works as a server at Café Capriccio, a downtown Italian eatery. Ms. Paga´n and Ms. Barnes live near each other in the Mansion neighborhood of Albany.

On June 27, these three women decided to create their own banner and protest the government’s inhumane treatment and unlawful detention of immigrants at the border. Their protest took place on Lark Street on a warm, sunlit morning, but the reception they received was surprisingly chilly given Albany’s status as a sanctuary city. Several passing cars honked and emitted jeers of counter-protest, and one passenger yelled, “Stop it with the Democrat bullshit” as the car’s driver rounded the corner and noisily peeled out of sight.

These responses point to the growing climate of political tension and discord here in our area. In Albany, conservative morning radio talk show Paul Vandenburg echoes these anti-illegal immigration views, and feels that many others do too.

When asked why residents in the region are so up-in-arms over the illegal immigration issue, Mr. Vandenburgh replied, “I hear a massive outcry of people in the region regarding illegal immigration across the country. People understand that with such a large input of illegal immigration into the country, that federal dollars are being used to help support them, and we’re a big part of federal dollars.”

The Capital Region, however, has long since been home to many new Americans, who contribute to the local economy. According to The New American Economy, a non-partisan statistical website, the number of legal immigrants residing in the Albany Metro Area is just below 67,500, which accounts for nearly $714.8 million in city tax revenues and represents $1.6 billion in spending power. These numbers are substantial, yet lawful immigrants in our region make up only 7.6% of the total population, a smaller proportion than most Albany residents might expect.

Although estimates of Albany’s current illegal and undocumented immigrant population are not clear and are difficult to come by, a 2016 population survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found only 5,000 illegal immigrants in the cities of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy combined. The survey also notes that the population change within these three Capital District cities had not fluctuated significantly over the past few years. This data suggests that since Albany is not home to a significant illegal immigrant population, the increasing divide between pro-immigration and anti-immigration camps is likely due to the fierce national debate. Clearly, President Donald J. Trump Jr.’s anti-immigrant policies are a vital concern to residents in a city where the actual effects of illegal immigration are not widely felt.

Both sides of the debate are now actively engaged in what seems to be one of the most divisive issues of the Trump presidency thus far, leaving the international wars of the Middle East far behind. Fittingly, the most disputed current areas of foreign policy that are recent US and British scuffles with Iran and the tensions between Pakistan and India over the fiercely disputed territory of Kashmir in Southeast Asia; while in the US we experience the increasing presence of white supremacists as exemplified in the El Paso, Dayton, and Gilroy, California shootings.

The City of Troy is now equally divided, as demonstrated by its recent debates in the City Council and their Mayor’s veto over a law that would designate Troy as a sanctuary city. Such anti-immigrant sentiment may be growing here in Albany as well, but it is very difficult to gauge how far that sentiment runs.

Just recently, for instance, a small group of New York State law clerks sued the State of New York in an effort to protect themselves from a federal law banning the issuance of drivers’ licenses to the state’s illegal immigrants. The reasons for their objection to New York’s new ‘Green Light Law’, however, are still unclear.

The Times Union, for example, reported at the end of June that this controversial lawsuit had been brought to the courts so that these clerks wouldn’t be held liable for violating the federal law that prohibits the issuing of such licenses. Mr. Vandenburgh, however, asserted that the main complaint on the part of these law clerks is that “the law says that you have to be a United States citizen.” He also mentioned Rep. Frank Merola, the Rensselaer County Clerk, who declared soon after the Green Light Law had passed that he wouldn’t abide by it. Merola’s declaration was in direct protest to the State government’s overwhelming support of the illegal immigrant population’s right to drive.

Mr. Vandenburgh supports the idea of issuing color-coded driver’s licenses that would permit illegals to drive motor vehicles but prevent them from voting illegally at the polls during elections.

The Three Lindas of Lark Street, however, view all of these broad efforts on the part of the federal government and the State’s silent chorus of staunch conservatives in a sinister light. They contend that the mistreatment of those in the detention centers at the border is just one example of countless abuses that typify America’s policies towards persons of color and those who have different ethnic backgrounds and different religious beliefs.

“This is Nazi Germany stuff,” said Ms. LeTendre angrily, “and I feel to be true to who I am and true to what the Gospel calls us to do, I need to be out there and saying ‘This is not okay’. This is, in fact, evil, and call it what it is, because in social work ‘if you don’t name it, you don’t change it.’ That’s what brought me out to [protest].”

Ms. Barnes said, “It’s a horrible thing when America is taking care of only white America, when all human beings are equal and everyone needs to be taken care of equally. And yes, maybe it’s a problem with people coming in illegally, but the way that it’s being treated is horrifying to me, because these are all human beings, and they don’t deserve it any more than anyone else’s children. So that’s why I’m doing this.”

When asked about the apparent dilemma regarding the role of Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE), Ms. Pagan, who is half-Puerto Rican, suggests that while ICE is not necessarily to blame for the mistreatment of immigrants, they presently function as “the American Gestapo” as a direct result of what the President has ordered them to do.

“They are out of control,” she said, with deep emotion in her voice. “It’s coming from the top. It’s coming from Trump. He’s doing it to satisfy his base, and he is the most careless, inhumane, evil man who has no concern whatsoever for anyone. My feeling is that the number of people coming in are coming in because they are in danger for their lives and their children are in danger, and a lot of the reasons why they are in danger is because of the actions of our government over many years of interference down there. Because we think we own the world.”

“They are detaining US citizens of color, of darker skin,” added Ms. LeTendre, also with deep emotion. “There was one young girl they detained for thirty hours, and [she had a] US passport, and she wasn’t the only one. And they’re kids. And now, ICE is using some of those kids to bait the parents.”

Ms. Banks’ reaction to some of the reports of the abuses of ICE officers towards the immigrants was more conciliatory.

“But the people who choose to work in that field, I don’t know if some of them have a problem actually doing what they’re being told to do lately, or if some of them actually agree with Trump,” she said. “I have no way of knowing that. I would never be able to, myself, do a lot of the things that the people are doing, never mind what’s happening beyond that, [such as] the abuses that are taking place.”

In response to the question of whether or not gender-based or government-based violence within their countries of origin are a good enough reason for them to claim asylum, Mr. Vandenburgh asserted that the immigrants should adhere strictly to the application process and not circumvent the law by crossing the border illegally.

When asked about his beliefs regarding how ICE and other federal authorities are treating illegal immigrants, Mr. Vandenburgh said, “Let me tell you, I don’t believe this administration, or any other administration in this country, would ever involve themselves in inhumane conditions. I think they would always try to do the best they could to try to treat people with a little bit of dignity and not treat them inhumanely at all.”

The Three Lindas of Lark Street have the direct opposite view, and both the women protestors and Mr. Vandenburgh are unshakable and unwavering in their positions on the matter. Where there was once near consensus supporting Clinton’s ideal of a borderless nation, as well as efforts by the George W. Bush Administration to grant access to Mexican immigrants ‘who do the jobs that most Americans won’t do,’ these ideas are now met with scorn by many segments of the population.

“I am of the belief that one of the main reasons why Mr. Trump is President is because America was sick and tired of illegal immigration,” said Mr. Vandenburgh. “And you can’t have it both ways. If people don’t want illegals in the country, you can’t make the case that ‘well, they do certain jobs that others don’t.’ That means that whoever the employer is within the state is going to have to pay more money and give more benefits and find a way to get those services to American workers.”

“The United States opens the borders when we need workers, and then we close the borders when we don’t need them anymore,” counters Ms. Pagan, when asked about how the immigration system really works. She pointed to what she had learned from Master’s degree candidates at SUNY Albany’s School of Social Work, where she worked several years earlier.

It is noteworthy that the Three Lindas of Lark Street decided to protest independently and without any encouragement from any particular group. Similarly, Mr. Vandenburgh also speaks for himself without apparent support from any local or national organization. Both sides seem to come to the battle without anyone else backing them. However, it is clear that there are many others who agree with what these camps advocate, and do not take their positions lightly.

Especially when it comes to the extremely delicate question of racism. It is this issue - detention and the perceived treatment of immigrants and all persons of color in the nation - that tends to provoke vitriolic responses from both opposing sides.

“This ‘racism’ is getting tossed around on everything now,” exclaimed Mr. Vandenburgh, “and I’m not so sure that people really understand what ‘racism’ is. I mean, you want real racism, take a look at how Blacks were treated 100 years ago. I am not a big believer that racism is as rampant in this country as people want us to believe. I just don’t believe that. I think people will genuinely try their best to treat people as human beings.”

Ms. Pagan insisted, however, that it is the extreme level of hatred towards people of color in our nation that gave rise to the Trump Presidency in the first place.

“His base is racist,” she said. “There’s this ‘white supremacy feeling’ in this country that whites are no longer going to be around, because there’s such an influx of color coming into this country.”

Ms. LeTendre, who is a self-described “American dissident” and has been arrested almost 27 times for acts of civil disobedience, echoed Ms. Pagan’s view that such initiatives as Trump’s border wall are “a blatant appeal to racism.”

In fact, Ms. LeTendre was once convicted for wearing an offensive tee-shirt during a protest inside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. and served a year of probation as a result. Ms. Pagan has herself been arrested twice for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience during a protest over the mistreatment of children at the southern border. Ms. Banks, on the other hand, functions as ‘jail support,’ which all three of the women humorously describe as a very important role, or “The stage crew of the play,” as Ms. LeTendre said. But Ms. Banks firmly states that she would be willing to go to jail supporting a cause she cared about.

While the three Lindas have engaged these important issues at the grassroots level, Mr. Vandenburgh’s approach has been much different and yet also packs a powerful punch. His popular morning radio program on Talk 1300 AM uses more established and institutional means of getting points across. As the President of Capital Broadcasting and with a career in broadcasting that spans 33 years, Mr. Vandenburgh has become the premier voice of the city’s conservatives, counting New York State officials such as New York State Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin as close conservative allies.

While Mr. Vandenburgh’s commentary is powerfully persuasive both on and off the air, the Lindas of Lark Street are also extremely passionate about what they believe in.

Their solution to the crisis involves the rapid processing of asylum applications and the guarantee of decent and humane treatment by ICE and other law enforcement agencies at the border. They also want policies that protect the sanctity of lawful immigrants and America’s rich tradition of welcoming the many who have already come to these shores from lands far away ever since the nation’s founding. They advocate for more judges to process the backlog of asylum applications and a greater quantity of social workers, immigration lawyers, and financial resources from a powerful nation with an abundance of wealth and goods. Food, beds, and decent housing are especially needed.

The conservative solution looks much different, as it proposes measures to stem the flow of an unprecedented number of immigrants flowing in from Central America and Mexico. The Trump Administration is now twisting the arms of the Mexican and Guatemalan governments to prevent these immigrants from leaving their own countries or else face the revocation of much-needed American funding to run their economies and govern their people. The building of the border wall is another solution that most conservatives support. They characterize the many attempts by the House Democrats to stop the wall as a pointed political strategy to gain leverage over Trump in the 2020 elections.

What no one is talking about is how far apart the “hearts” of the left and the “hands” of the right are on this important issue. Historically, it is usually the joining of “hearts and hands” that offers the most hope for resolution to the nation’s pressing crises.

Unfortunately, immigration is just one small issue within the overwhelming problems of national dysfunction and the inability to bridge the gaping chasm between liberal and conservative sensibilities. A volatile election year looms on the horizon. How these problems will impact our community remains to be seen.

About the author

Harvey Havel is not just a contributor to The New Scene. He is a short-story writer and novelist. His first novel, Noble McCloud, A Novel, was published in November of 1999. His second novel, The Imam, A Novel, was published in 2000.

Over the years of being a professional writer, Havel has published his third novel, Freedom of Association. He worked on several other books and published his eighth novel, Charlie Zero's Last-Ditch Attempt, and his ninth, The Orphan of Mecca, Book One, which was released last year. His new novel, Mr. Big, is his latest work about a Black-American football player who deals with injury and institutionalized racism. It’s his fifteenth book He has just released his sixteenth book, a novel titled The Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill, and his seventeenth will be a non-fiction political essay about America’s current political crisis, written in 2019.

Havel is formerly a writing instructor at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey. He also taught writing and literature at the College of St. Rose in Albany as well as SUNY Albany.

Copies of his books and short stories, both new and used, may be purchased at all online retailers and by special order at other fine bookstores. He also donated copies of his books to Howe where they can be read and enjoyed.

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