On Immigration, Americans Show Range of Views

How are U.S. citizens reacting to the sudden rise in immigrants' numbers and aspirations? Some are enraged about broken borders and the rule of law. But many simply accept the phenomenon — and quite a few are positive about it.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Congress is not alone in its indecision about immigration. Polls show that there is no consensus among the American people about what to do on the matter.

A recent pew poll says roughly as many Americans believe newcomers strengthen American society as say they threaten traditional values. However, a majority worry about illegal immigration.

NPR's Linda Wertheimer went to North Carolina to hear what people there have to say about the issue.

LINDA WERTHEIMER reporting:

The new immigrants to North Carolina are mostly from Mexico and they are recent. In 1990, the census put North Carolina's Hispanic population at just over 75,000. By 2004, it was over half a million and growing. And they stand out, as they might not in a border state.

Consider the Church of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Durham. Father Steve Paddy says mass to a mostly white congregation that includes Duke faculty, high tech professionals that Sunday morning. Sunday afternoon, mass is in Spanish.

Father STEVE PADDY (Church of the Immaculate Conception): You see mainly Mexicans. They're working in landscaping. They're working in hotels. They're working in restaurants washing dishes, and it's like two different worlds.

WERTHEIMER: Hispanics are around 6 percent of the state's population but 13 percent of new births. Father Steve says at Immaculate Conception, that's something you can't miss.

Father PADDY: Baptism's huge. Huge increase in baptisms. A couple months ago, Father Yahtzik (ph) had one Saturday that he had 30 baptisms. I mean it was just, it was almost like an assembly line. It was one kid after another. But yeah, there are a huge increase in baptisms, yes. In Spanish.

(Soundbite of kids playing)

WERTHEIMER: North of town, at the Little League ball fields, we met Gail Govert. She's a part time stockbroker. Her two sons were playing on different teams, so we talked standing between the two ball fields.

Ms. GAIL GOVERT (North Carolina resident): I belong to Immaculate Conception parish and over the last ten years that we've been here, we've seen a huge influx, probably a doubling of the parish, to where the Hispanic immigrant population is as large as the other population in the church.

WERTHEIMER: How do you feel about all of these folks being here in North Carolina?

Ms. GOVERT: I'm glad that they're here. My grandparents all came over from Eastern Europe back in the early 1900s. And our family has benefited tremendously by being here in two generations.

WERTHEIMER: On this breezy spring evening, we found Debbie Hartman and Tommy Tony sitting in the bleachers. Tommy is a social worker in a nursing home. We'll hear from her but first, here's Debbie. She's a teacher. She's impressed with the immigrant parents she sees.

Ms. DEBBIE HARTMAN (North Carolina resident): They're trying to learn English. They're trying to become part of the culture here for the children's sake. And the children are learning English, too, because they came to us not knowing English.

WERTHEIMER: One of the things that surveys show that people who work around immigrants or who know immigrant families tend to have a more positive attitude toward immigrants than people who don't know any.

Ms. TOMMY TONY (North Carolina resident): Yes. I think that's definitely true. I recently moved my grandmother here and she is certainly not used to people who don't speak English but with her experiences, you know, people coming in, even taking the trash or something, because she lives in a nursing home, she says, well, she's real nice. You know, she's my buddy. She visits with me everyday. So, I think she's beginning to, even though I'm sure she doesn't realize it, have more of an acceptance of people that aren't just like she is.

WERTHEIMER: Are you concerned that so many people from another culture will change this place into --

Mr. RAY SALMAN (North Carolina resident): Is that a trick question? Yes. United States is a melting pot and maybe that's what the United States was meant to do. But we don't like to see it, you know what I'm saying? I mean, we'll be a minority without a doubt. The homelands we used to know is not even here anymore. It's gone.

WERTHEIMER: That's Ray Salman. He's a small businessman watching his 9-year-old grandson pitch. His concern is shared by a substantial minority of Americans, even in North Carolina where immigrant labor is holding down the costs of development.

We heard about the new realities over coffee at Java Jive in Cary, North Carolina, that's just south of Durham. Michael Miller is another small businessman. He told us about renovating his house.

Mr. MICHAEL MILLER (North Carolina resident): Had a new roof put on. Was all Hispanic. Had hardwood floors put in. All Hispanic.

WERTHEIMER: Would you have been willing to pay thousands more for the work done on your house?

Mr. MILLER: It's not like I had a choice to go out and say, I want you to hire Hispanics so I can pay less for my roof. That's just what's happening. Now, if these people were hiring people that they were providing health insurance and 401K plan and paying them $12 or $15 an hour, then I would have gotten three bids that would have been, say, $8000 or $9000 per roof instead of $6000. And so I would have, as a consumer, I would have been forced into paying the $8000.

WERTHEIMER: Mike Miller theorizes that if immigration were sharply curtailed, then employers would be forced to pay competitive wages to Americans.

Patricia Bryant knows about that. She is retired. She worked as a waitress and as a domestic.

Ms. PATRICIA BRYANT (North Carolina resident): Well, I have a brother and he was working at a construction company, a big construction company. He was a pipe layer for years and they let him go. What he was doing, he was making good money. And now this company has hired nothing but Hispanics.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think employers actually have a preference for Hispanic workers?

Ms. BRYANT: Yes. I've heard them say it. I mean, I watch little dogs every night and I hear them calling in saying that. They'll work harder, I guess, you say work harder for lower pay. It still doesn't make it right.

WERTHEIMER: About 16 percent of Americans know someone whose low wage job was lost it immigrants. That's in the pew survey, which also says despite increasingly positive attitudes towards immigrants, 60 percent of Americans are concerned about illegal immigration.

Kathy Mayville is a teacher in Carrboro, North Carolina.

Ms. KATHY MAYVILLE (North Carolina resident): It wouldn't occur to me to have three phony driver's licenses and a fake social security card in my pocket. And what would happen to me if I did? It's the illegal status of, well, illegal immigrants that's the problem. We need to enforce our laws. Why is there this growing sense in Congress, apparently, and among business people that it's perfectly okay to flaunt the law just because it will make me some more money?

WERTHEIMER: But the bottom line is the bottom line, says James Johnson. He's an economist at the Keenan Institute at UNC. He says immigrants, legal and illegal, add $9 billion to North Carolina's economy now and that number will grow. And, Johnson says, even if it were possible to end the problem of illegal immigrants by sending them home, that could be a hardship for North Carolinians.

Mr. JAMES JOHNSON (University of North Carolina): The next time you sit down to have a meal and the meal is $20, just put another $20 on the table so you can balance out those wages. Or the next time you build a house, just add $200,000 to the price of a house, and then you can factor in the wage rates. But I don't hear very many people racing to the table and say, I'll pay more.

WERTHEIMER: At the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Durham, Father Steve Paddy and his congregation are trying to live with the new realities. When their spare and modern new sanctuary was built, they added on one side an old fashioned ornate shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Father PADDY: We're one parish, and I think we're still trying to figure out, well, what does that mean for us as a single parish to have two very different communities?

WERTHEIMER: Reporting on immigration in North Carolina, I'm Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

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