One of the biggest election-year brawls over illegal immigration isn't happening in a Texas border town. It's taking place on eastern Long Island in an area that includes wealthy vacation homeowners, working-class families and a new generation of Hispanic immigrants — some of whom aren't in the country legally.
Rep. Tim Bishop (D), a white-bearded liberal and born-and-bred Long Islander, has held New York's 1st Congressional District seat since 2003. He faces a serious challenge this year from State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R), an Iraq War veteran who has taken a hawkish position toward migrant children seeking refuge in the U.S. from violence and poverty.
"Our nation needs to send a new message to Central and South American parents that we are not going to grant amnesty to their children when they come here alone," Zeldin wrote on his Facebook account this September.
Bishop, in turn, has criticized Zeldin's lack of sympathy for child migrants. "I don't know how you can be compassionate, but send them back to be recruited to join gangs," he told Fusion by phone on Monday.
"It underlines his fundamental hypocrisy," Bishop continued. "He talks about how he is going to go to Washington and be a healer….and yet he then stakes out for himself very extreme positions that are in some cases pretty hateful."
Zeldin, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment, may hope that public frustration over how to deal with the children will give him a bump in the polls. He trailed Bishop by 10 percentage points in a September poll commissioned by Newsday, News 12 and Siena College. A more recent (if less trustworthy) internal poll from the Zeldin camp showed the race dead even.
Immigration is a top issue for voters in the district, and Zeldin is following a national trend of Republicans hammering Democrats and President Obama over what they criticize as lenient policies.
One early poll showed the conservative message had not given Zeldin an edge. The September poll by Newsday found voters split over who would better represent their immigration views in Congress. In addition, 65 percent of voters favored immigration reform that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants while securing the borders — the type of legislation Bishop has supported in the past.
Over the summer, a surge of unaccompanied Central American children arrived at the United States border, driven north by desperation and the hope of a better life. Federal law required that the Office of Refugee Resettlement place the children in "the least restrictive setting possible while in federal custody." In practice, that typically meant with a family member or with a non-profit organization.
Long Island emerged as one of the biggest destinations for unaccompanied children, with roughly 2,500 placed between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31. For some perspective, only 1,552 children were placed in all of New York City.
Tensions over immigration are not new to eastern Long Island. In recent decades, more Latin American immigrants have settled in sleepy towns and villages previously populated by white European residents, turning the topic into a political football.
In some cases, opponents of illegal immigration have turned to violence. In 2008, Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero was killed after a group of teens attacked him in the town of Patchogue. A subsequent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found Hispanic immigrants were routinely subject to harassment, including being pelted with bottles and shot with B.B. guns.
Bishop has taken a progressive approach to immigration during his time in office. Last year, he joined his fellow Democrats in the House backing an immigration reform bill that would have created a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants (the legislation did not attract support from House Republicans).
When news emerged in late August that Long Island had received thousands of the unaccompanied minors caught at the border, Bishop struck a balanced tone, asking his constituents to view it "as a humanitarian crisis as well as a crisis that has to do with protecting our borders."
The congressman isn't letting the federal government off the hook, however. He told Fusion the feds should reimburse Long Island schools for the cost of educating unaccompanied minors. The newly arrived students could be particularly challenging to absorb into a school district, since they may be English-language learners who require special instruction or have emotional issues.
The view from Long Island residents isn't as polemic as it might appear in the political space.
Gerald McCaffery, the president and CEO of Mercy First, a Long Island non-profit organization that has housed hundreds of migrant kids, told Fusion that he's received a slew of calls about the children in recent months. A small percentage were from people who were "very angry" and who thought this was "the beginning of the end of Western civilization," he said. But most came from people who were trying to help by donating clothing and supplies.
The kids themselves maintain a positive attitude, perhaps oblivious to the political struggle that's emerged since their arrival. "[They] are incredibly appreciative of being here, very eager to learn English, really eager to get to school," McCaffery said. "It's kind of like all the things we'd like our kids to be."
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.