Concerns of Delmarva's immigrants are focus of seminar at university

Peninsula industry relies on foreign-born residents

June 06, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY - Fed by an ever-growing need for poultry and agricultural workers, a quiet tide of immigration that began sweeping across Delmarva a decade ago has become one of the most significant cultural changes in the peninsula's history, a university professor said yesterday.

"This is as profound a change that has come to this peninsula since the colonists arrived," said University of Delaware researcher Mark Miller. "It has enormous implications for race relations, the economy, education - virtually everything."

Miller was among 300 people, including federal, state and local officials, immigration rights advocates, clerics, employers, union organizers and private social service professionals, who turned out for a day-long seminar at Salisbury State University to consider the implications of immigration.

Conservative estimates put the immigrant population at one in 10 on Delmarva, where Latin Americans from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala have been joined by Haitians, Vietnamese, Koreans and other newcomers who arrive in search of entry-level jobs that most Americans don't want.

With the population of the three-state region put at around 500,000, at least 50,000 permanent residents are foreign-born, officials say. By some estimates, the Hispanic population on Delmarva has increased 200 percent in the last decade.

The seminar was sponsored by congressmen from Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. Participants discussed employment, education, health care and immigration issues that often are paramount in the lives of foreign-born workers who have filled thousands of low-paying jobs.

Representatives from the poultry and agricultural industries said they have come to depend on foreign-born workers, who constitute a majority of the work force in many companies.

At the top of the list of concerns for many immigrants, especially workers who entered the country illegally, is the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Sitting on the panel with immigration rights advocates, Louis Crocetti, district director of the INS regional office in Baltimore, said the agency spends little time and few resources tracking down undocumented workers, concentrating instead on those with criminal records.

Albert Snyder, a Salisbury attorney who specializes in immigration law, joined others in calling for reform of 1996 immigration rules he says have sent thousands of illegal immigrants to jail, many for relatively minor offenses.

He said many families are forced to make agonizing choices: whether to split the family when one parent is deported so the other can stay in the United States with the American-born children, or return to their native countries.

"If there is any term more offensive than alien, it's criminal alien," Snyder said. "This is not a criminal justice system, it's a bureaucracy. We struggle every day to help direct families through the eye of the needle, through this "Sophie's Choice" created by this system."

Bishop Joel Johnson, who heads the Anglican Diocese of the Chesapeake and has worked with the Hispanic community on the Eastern Shore for years, said yesterday's seminar might mark a turning point: "It's impossible to imagine a meeting such as this taking place five years ago, particularly with participation from the INS."

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