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March 7, 2006

WASHINGTON - The federal government "aids and abets" employers who cheat the system by hiring undocumented workers, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said here yesterday at the inaugural meeting of a coalition for immigration reform.

Levy and Danbury, Conn., Mayor Mark Boughton formed Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform to organize local leaders from across the country to pressure Congress to deal with the strain they believe illegal immigrants put on local governments.

Levy spoke of a disconnect between Congress and the American people, saying that "everybody gets that immigration is a serious issue except those who represent us in Washington." He said the federal government has failed to implement effective policies and local governments have been left with the financial burden of laws that allow undocumented residents to remain in the country and use public services.

Though organizers say they hold no official stance or ideology, speakers were invited from conservative organizations the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies.

Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, said he favors erecting "firewalls," which he described as "barriers to illegal immigrants to important institutions in our society so they can't live a normal life here."

Like many of the 60 attendees from 26 states, Krikorian spoke out against allowing undocumented workers to stay in the country as guest workers, an idea that has support in the U.S. Senate and the White House.

Krikorian said re-labeling illegal immigrants wouldn't solve any problem, but that there needed to be a change in the atmosphere that would encourage illegal immigrants to leave the country.

Bill Schmidt, a councilman from Peekskill, feared the guest-worker program would create a tier of second-class citizens. "If there is a labor shortage in the United States that can't be filled by American citizens and we want to bring people from other countries to fill that void, why wouldn't you want to do it in such a way as that they would ultimately become citizens so they fully integrate with our country's values and lifestyle?"

Lynn Tramonte, a senior policy-communication associate at the National Immigration Forum, said illegal immigration continues to soar despite tougher laws passed in the past 10 years. If there is a job that an American doesn't want, she said, it should be open to an immigrant in a legal way.

A bill that would crack down on illegal immigration, co-written by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), passed the House of Representatives in December. The Senate is currently drafting its own immigration bill, which is scheduled to be put to a vote later this month.