Eugene Kersten says he gets "more and more unpatriotic every day."
It's not necessarily his country's involvement in Iraq that has the Vietnam veteran, a 61-year-old North Sider, upset. His dwindling patriotism is rooted in illegal immigration, an issue he considers "one of the most important subjects in the United States."
"What does that flag even mean?" he asked at a Sept. 20 League of Women Voters forum on immigration, pointing to the stars and stripes.
Held before an audience of 60 at Squirrel Hill's Jewish Community Center, the forum was intended to explore differing viewpoints on the origins of, and solutions for, the immigration crisis. The panel included social workers, researchers and a state legislator -- all of whom agreed that illegal immigration must end. But it was soon clear why illegal immigration is such a divisive issue, even in places like Western Pennsylvania where any kind of immigrant is rare.
Illegal immigration "is nothing less than an invasion of our nation," said panelist and state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), who has backed five bills in the state House of Representatives to help oust illegal immigrants from Pennsylvania.
"Calling it an invasion comes from nothing but fear," countered Sister Janice Vanderneck, director of social services for the Latino Catholic Community.
Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., provided a handout for audience members, charting the rising number of legal and illegal immigrants entering the country each year. He estimates that the illegal immigrant population in the U.S. increases by about half a million people per year.
Metcalfe voiced support for Hazelton, Pa. mayor Louis Barletta, who has made national headlines by approving local ordinances to evict illegal immigrant workers. This summer, a federal court ruled Barletta's laws unconstitutional -- a ruling that sets a poor precedent for state and local officials seeking to take immigration into their own hands. Still, Metcalfe is determined to solve the problem at the state level. He and other Republicans have sponsored measures to, among other things, punish employers who hire illegal immigrants, and eliminate illegal immigrants' access to government benefits.
"Shut off their economic sustenance," Metcalfe said. "They would have no choice but to leave."
"So starve them out?" asked moderator Jon Delano, money and politics editor for KDKA News.
"Well, no," Metcalfe answered.
"We welcome [legal immigrants] with open arms," he said at another point in the debate, "but it's unacceptable to allow [illegal immigrants] to steal the American dream."
"They can't come here legally!" Vanderneck retorted, citing the 10-year wait she's witnessed some immigrants endure while trying to enter the country lawfully.
"They don't want to come here illegally," agreed Charlotte Fox Zabusky, director of the Pittsburgh Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center. "But they can't find a way to come legally."
When asked by Delano, to explain why immigrants enter the U.S. illegally, Vanderneck, Zabusky and Paul Quarantillo, president of the Laborer's District Council of Western, Pa., all agreed poverty was the driving force.
But Metcalfe cited another motivation. Illegal immigrants are responsible for an increasing amount of drug-running, gang activity, and crime, he contended.
"We've had known serial killers," he added. "Those are facts you cannot deny."
"Oh, come on!" shouted some members of the audience, who had been growing increasingly restless about Metcalfe's remarks.
But Kersten, for one, supports Metcalfe's approach.
"The guys who hire [the illegal immigrants]: They are the criminals," he says. "If they couldn't get a job here, they wouldn't come here.
"You don't need a wall; just go to the employers," he continues. "It all comes down to cheap labor. I thought we got rid of slavery."