Immigration has transformed the town of East Hampton. Just 25 years ago, only a handful of Latinos lived or even worked here. Today, 42 percent of the students at the Springs School are Latino, according to one of the speakers at a forum on immigration that was held Sunday at the Legion Hall in Amagansett. The percentages at the East Hampton and Montauk schools are 33 and 32 percent, respectively.

It is almost incredible that a demographic shift so major and sudden has been accompanied by so little evidence of overt hostility or friction. Latinos are accepted in East Hampton. They are the major labor force for the town’s second home economy. And yet, outside of the schools, Latinos keep such a low profile—except on the roads, where they seem to be ubiquitous—that they rarely come into direct personal contact with people of other backgrounds, except in a service capacity or maybe passing in an aisle at the IGA or Waldbaums.

Two worlds living side by side, separately but in peace. So what’s the problem?

It has taken the 140 years since slavery was abolished for blacks to begin to see the light of justice and equal rights in this country. If they hadn’t raised their voices and had instead kept quiet all these years, they’d have been accepted, too, and would have remained living ?in a separate world, out of sight and out of mind, except when they were needed for labor.

After the long, painful and cathartic struggle to bring civil rights and better, if not always equal, opportunities to many blacks, it is terribly wrong that another people now living among us must keep quiet and out of the mainstream to get along. The new apartheid can only be destructive, undermining everything this country stands for and eroding the foundation that made it great and good.

What complicates the issue, stirring anger and bitter resentment, is the question of immigration. Why should we have to ponder justice, equal rights for, and the integration of a people who, in many cases, came here illegally and don’t speak our language?

Latinos come here because there’s work for them. We invite them, in a sense. If we don’t want a flood of immigrants, legal and illegal, we shouldn’t be hiring them to paint our houses and cut our lawns. Of course, we’re not going to stop. We can’t. And once the people are here, working for us, we owe it to them and ourselves to treat them with dignity and respect. One of the only good things that President George W. Bush tried to do during his otherwise catastrophic hold on power was to back a process that would have allowed illegal immigrants to work toward citizenship.

Illegal immigration is not a problem the Town of East Hampton can resolve or even address. It can only administer its own codes fairly and consistently, including those limiting how many people may be squeezed into a house. It is not “anti-immigrant,” for example, for the town to enforce codes intended to protect people from fire hazards and neighborhoods from nuisances. It is instead the right and proper thing to do.

Likewise, Suffolk County has neither the resources nor the responsibility for tackling the issue of illegal immigration. Nevertheless, two legislators have proposed a law that would require any people who need a county license to operate their businesses to certify their workers are all legal residents. They say they’re doing it because the U.S. has failed to enforce federal law. If the feds can’t enforce the law, how will the county do it? The bill, if adopted, will do nothing to end an economic and demographic phenomenon that is overwhelming; it will only provide a mechanism for further harassment of an already beleaguered labor force.

“The Listening Project,” a series of interviews with Latinos and non-Latinos about immigration conducted locally, was the initial subject of Sunday’s forum at the Legion Hall in Amagansett. At a scientific study, it was weak. No methodology was provided for the choice of interview subjects, the questions they were asked or the analysis of their answers. Its “results” were not surprising: there is a need for affordable housing, for example, and Latino people, it was said, are not good drivers.

What makes “The Listening Project” an important resource is its very existence. Talking about the realities of living in East Hampton today, for all people, is the first step toward holding this place together.

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