It's hard not to feel sympathy for a sobbing young woman, explaining she only came to this country to work -- for a better life. She believes in her heart, despite what the law says, she has not committed a crime.
On the other hand, it's also difficult not to empathize with an elderly retiree, standing on a street corner with a picket sign, trying to rally support for laws that will remove thousands of day laborers waiting for work on the corners of a suburb that could be anywhere in America.
"We are not bad people," says Teresa Biarra in New Haven, Conn. "We are people dedicated to working." Biarra is here illegally. She's free on bail after federal immigration officers arrested her and 30 others recently.
"The whole thing is the law," says Sue Grant in Farmingville, New York. "I want our politicians to enforce the law, that's all I'm asking." Grant and a few others are picketing at a busy intersection, with signs demanding deportation for anyone here illegally.
The stories of these two women illustrate the nation's sharp divide on illegal immigration. Should we crack down or show compassion? Can we get rid of them, or are they here to stay?
The leaders of Farmingville, part of Suffolk County, New York, and the leaders of New Haven couldn't be farther apart. In Suffolk, Steve Levy is a hardline, law-and-order county executive with soaring approval ratings, and the support of both Democrats and Republicans for re-election. He has come to personify in many ways, the local official doing everything he can with existing laws on the books to get rid of the thousands of day laborers crowding his county.
"It's not as though we went out looking for this issue," says Levy venting his frustrations about Washington's inability to fashion an effective immigration policy. "It's hit us on the side of the head like a sledgehammer."
Over in New Haven, Mayor John DeStefano is a strong proponent of integrating illegal immigrants into the community, drawing them out of the shadows in the interest of public safety, and because of the crucial role they play in the local economy. His police have what's essentially a "don't ask, don't tell" policy with the city's residents when it comes to matters of immigration status.
"What we rely on to create a safe community is police who know who lives in the neighborhoods and those folks have a trusting relationship," is how the mayor sees things.
Interestingly, both local leaders say the main concern is public safety, not some ideological point of view to influence the nation's foreign policy. That has led Levy in Suffolk county to push for anti-loitering laws, and tougher enforcement of the rules of the road to break up the crowds. Opponents defeated those anti-loitering measures claiming they would criminalize standing on the street, and lead to racial profiling.
"Standing While Latino," they argued, would become a crime. So, police began turning up the heat in "routine" traffic stops. Anyone stopped without a license, and no proper identification gets sent to jail. The result, perhaps not surprisingly, is dozens of illegal immigrants behind bars. And the sting is just gathering pace.
Perhaps because of the sensitivity of targeting people of a certain race or color, Levy insists all of this is about public safety.
"The answer is to enforce the laws on the books and not to hide your eyes and pretend it's not happening," he insists. Levy also has been asking for federal immigration officers to staff the county's jails. So anyone arrested and here illegally can immediately face possible deportation. Already the sheriff has referred thousands of suspects to federal authorities. They'd like that number to rise even higher. Essentially, removing one illegal worker at a time.
Meanwhile, back in New Haven, the Mayor is determined to keep federal officers out of his community -- especially after a roundup last month that swept up 31 people, including Teresa Biarra. The mayor's concern (and that's putting it mildly) is that the raid was unprecedented, and staged two days after the city formally approved a new resident identification card program, the first in the nation. Available to everyone, but particularly useful to undocumented residents, who'll now have a document to use to sign up for city services, open bank accounts, and identify themselves to police.
So, did the immigration raid happen because of the card program?
"Homeland security at every level insists that was not the case," says the mayor, based on calls all the way up to Secretary Michael Chertoff.
"If they weren't, it was just an incredible coincidence," the mayor said, his voice heavy with suspicion. He adds the local economy has become dependent on what's called, "the undocumented community." And he offers his view of what citizenship really is all about. "It's a set of values about working hard, about taking care of your family ... values that say you are responsible for one another and the community," he says. Values rather than a piece of paper or a passport is his point.
"I think the idea of sanctuary is just nuts," Levy fires back. "When you look the other way at illegality ... it just encourages more," he insists. Rather than a municipal ID card, he suggests a fool-proof worker ID card only available to people here legally -- that, along with punishing employers who hire workers they shouldn't.
"There's no line you can draw ... based on documented or undocumented at this point," argues DeStefano. Everyone living in cities are too close and interdependent to be separated is how he sees it. He hopes the resident cards build trust, especially with police. One reason for the program was a wave of crime directed at workers on payday, their pockets full of cash, and no one willing to speak openly to the authorities.
All of which brings us back to where we started. Sue Grant in Suffolk continues her protests directed at the men on the corners. Protests entering year five. She believes her community can be restored to what it used to be.
"All we have to do is put a fence along the border," she suggests. "And deport the people who are here."
"I'm simply looking for a better life," says Biarra. Immigration hearings will determine if she and the others now in custody will be able to stay in this country, or be forced to go.
Crackdown or compassion. Each side believes their approach works. And just about everyone agrees the solution must come from Washington. However, with all the partisan bickering and stalemate, no one expects much from D.C. anytime soon.