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Queens leaders, advocates rally against anti-immigrant billboard

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Patrick Markey

It was a simple sign. But the message is a controversial one.

Printed on a red billboard with bold white lettering it was also bound to stir up talk.

"Over 80% of Americans support very little or no immigration. Is anyone listening to us?" read the sign put up by ProjectUSA.

Not a question that could go unanswered for long in Sunnyside, a New York section that has long been a patchwork of mixed immigrant neighborhoods, among them a large contingent of Irish arrivals.

Last week, Queens community leaders and immigration advocates met under the Sunnyside billboard to decry what they saw as a harmful and divisive message.

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Queens Borough President Claire Shulman said the billboard would incite problems for immigrants. Others were equally critical.

"While I cherish and support the right to free speech, I cannot support the politics of ProjectUSA," said Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields in a statement released last week.

"ProjectUSA states that it wants to stir public debate on the issue of immigration. However, displaying billboards meant to rouse anti-immigrant sentiment in no way provides for an intelligent and meaningful discussion of this issue."

Behind the controversial Sunnyside sign and two others put up in Brooklyn and Ridgewood, is Craig Nelsen, the founder of ProjectUSA. Described in its website as a patriotic grassroots group "dedicated to reversing America’s disastrous immigration policy," ProjectUSA advocates lowering traditional immigration levels, not immigrant bashing, the site says.

"Our primary purpose is to put the immigration issue at the center of the national debate."

"We at projectUSA believe the unprecedented level of foreigners arriving in the US everyday is eroding our quality of life," and threatening the foundations of the country, the site continues. The website says a fourth sign will go up in Manhattan soon, before thanking the visitor for their patriotism.

Irish immigration advocate Eamonn Dornan of the Emerald Isle in Queens said ProjectUSA attacked the most common denominator, that immigrants take up space and resources. That argument did not address the complex range of contributions that immigrants make to their communities through taxes and other payments, Dornan said.

For instance, in Woodlawn, he said, the new Irish immigrants had contributed to the local development and a growth in small businesses.

"An immigrant group can come in and revitalize a neighborhood without any local economy," Dornan said.

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