Land of opportunity: LI immigrants speak out on pending legislation

Sonia M. Pena, age 45, left, and her daughter Sonia E. Pena, age 32, right, pose together in the home they share in Brentwood. Both are concerned about how they will be affected by immigration reform. (Apr. 26, 2013)

A plan to transform the country's immigration system is headed for a vote in the U.S. Senate and will likely fuel the public discussion on what reform should mean for millions of people yearning to live here.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and crafted by a bipartisan "Gang of Eight," aims to shrink backlogs and open paths to legal status and citizenship, while bolstering enforcement.

The changes could be "a recipe for economic growth and vibrancy" in immigrant havens like New York because of "a rising-tide effect" in wages, tax contributions and improved workplace rights, said Donald M. Kerwin, Jr., director of the Center for Migration Studies of New York, a think tank.


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Many of the 11 to 12 million immigrants in the United States illegally would earn "registered provisional" status, permanent residency and citizenship on various timetables. Hundreds of thousands in temporary statuses could seek permanent residence. Tens of thousands would get work visas.

Steven Camarota, research director of the D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies that seeks restricted immigration, said the plan could give more than 30 million people new green cards over a decade.

"It's grossly out of touch with the realities of the U.S. labor market," he said.

The voices of immigrants at the center of the debate are sometimes drowned out by the policy fight. When they speak, as Long Island immigrants ranging from a migrant worker to an advanced-degree student did recently, the common theme they evoke is opportunity.

 

Dreamers

As Clara Cortés was about to scale a fence into Arizona one early October morning in 1999 with her 5-year-old daughter, she hesitated. Was it the right decision?

But the single mom -- who left college short of a law degree in Puebla, Mexico -- carried on, knowing it would mean her daughter could have a brighter future.

As one of the young immigrants known as "Dreamers," Luba Cortés, now 19, is temporarily exempted from deportation under President Barack Obama's "deferred action" policy.

"I consider myself an American," said Luba, an Amityville resident.

The Senate reform plan would put Dreamers on a fast track to legal permanent residency and eventual citizenship after five years.

But it breaks Luba's heart to know that her mother would trudge a steeper path: facing $2,000 in penalties; paying any owed federal taxes and being required to stay employed and above the poverty level.

She'd be able to apply for full legal status in 10 years and citizenship after 13 years.

"It doesn't feel like this is a reward," said Clara Cortés, 42, a housekeeper. "It's not amnesty because I haven't committed a crime. I haven't stolen. I haven't killed anyone. What I've done here is work."

Luba, who graduated from Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Bayside, Queens, before moving to Long Island, is waiting to hear from colleges. She'll study criminal justice to become the prosecutor her mother couldn't be.

One recent morning, she put her arm around her mother as they stood in their trailer home's living room, where Clara Cortés often prays before a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

"My mom," Luba said, "is really the original dreamer."

 

Here to stay

Sonia Evangelina Peña is one of more than 209,000 Salvadorans allowed to stay in the United States after a 2001 earthquake struck their homeland.

The Brentwood resident and her mother hold work permits, despite their expired tourist visas, under a "temporary protected status," or TPS.

Protection from deportation is given to immigrants from nations distressed by conflict, disasters and other conditions. Tens of thousands of Salvadorans, Haitians and Hondurans on Long Island have that status.

People like Peña hope there will be more to life than going from one TPS extension to another under the Senate plan.

She came to the United States when she was 15 and today, at 32, is still labeled TEMP. VISITOR on her driver's license.

"We are like living in a limbo," Peña said.

In those years, she learned English and graduated from Brentwood High as an A student. She worked for a pharmacy-supply company, where she rose from assembly line worker to manager. She paid tuition at Suffolk Community College, where she got an associate degree in business administration.

A peach-colored wall in the small apartment that she shares with her mom is covered with framed diplomas and certificates that include Student of the Month, an Excellence award for learning English and Honor Roll recognitions.

Looking at the wall, her mother, Sonia M. Peña, put her right hand on her chest. "That's my source of pride, the reason we're here," she said.

 

Working the land

The day's work started at sunrise and would last until dusk for Rafael Vega and five other men, all migrants, kneeling amid rows of kale plants at a Brookhaven farm.

Vega, 23, used a knife to cut through the stems' bases and tear discolored leaves from each bunch before placing the vegetables in crates.

He spends springs and summers toiling on Long Island fields, at $9 an hour. He supports his wife, two toddlers, elderly parents and two younger brothers in Pachuca, Mexico.

He has a half-built house there, where every cinder block is paid for with dollars. He's convinced that as much as he needs the money, Americans depend on his labor.

"The produce would spoil without us," he said in Spanish. "We work under the sun, under the rain, in the cold and in the heat. . . . Those who say we take their jobs should come to work with us."

Senate Bill 744's provisions would put agricultural workers on a "blue card" status to enter and leave the country as needed. After five years, they would qualify for permanent residence, paying a $400 fine.

"If there were a way to come in legally, it would be better for everyone," he said. "We could come in to work and go visit family when there is no work."

 

'Trying to be the best'

Linshuai "Henry" Qin came from China as an 11-year-old to visit Disneyland in California, but the journey led to a no-return flight to New York City.

His parents, a stock-trader dad and hotel-receptionist mom, came first because they had been struggling to pay rent or buy food in China, Qin said, and they later sent for him.

He grew up in Corona, Queens, oblivious to his status until he had to think about college. He realized he wouldn't be accepted in most schools and would not qualify for financial aid.

Feeling dejected, he wanted to quit school and become a restaurant worker, but his parents stepped in.

"After dinner, they sat me down. . . . They know what it's like to work in Chinese restaurants, six days, 12 hours a day, so they persuaded me that that's not what we came for," said Qin, 23.

Now Qin, also a Dreamer, is a health science major at Stony Brook University and has applied to a medical school that accepts immigrants with deferred cases.

He works summers at Asian restaurants. He's been a busboy, a counter employee at a takeout place and a waiter. But he does it to pay tuition.

Legal status would make the difference on whether he stays a restaurant worker or serves as a military doctor, he said.

"People like me," Qin said, "are just trying to be the best of ourselves."

 

U.S. remains 'huge draw'

Before setting foot in America, Harry honed his basic English watching "Friends" on TV, graduated to more advanced language skills thanks to "The West Wing" and learned curse words from episodes of "The Sopranos."

"Harry" is the American alias for Charilaos Papadopoulos, an East Setauket resident from Athens, Greece, who is a PhD candidate in computer science at Stony Brook University.

He is in the country on a student visa that classifies him as a "nonimmigrant," because he's not allowed to stay. He's the kind of skilled immigrant high-tech U.S. companies say they need to maintain global competitiveness.

He's among advanced-degree students who put together Stony Brook's "Reality Deck," a display of more than a billion-and-a-half pixels, considered the virtual reality theater with the highest resolution in the planet.

He loves it here but, without reform, sees "a hazy landscape" ahead. While study programs at American universities are "a huge draw" for professionals, they can lead to visa dead ends, said Papadopoulos, 26.

The Senate plan opens routes for skilled workers by increasing annual job visas from 65,000 to an initial 110,000. It exempts professors, researchers and noncitizens with doctorates from visa caps. It sets aside visas for professionals in science, engineering, technology and math. With the plan's merit tracks, education and skills boost chances to stay.

Papadopoulos said skilled workers would grow roots here, if they were allowed.

"Many PhD and master's students come to the U.S. to get a better education," he said. "At the end of the day you want the opportunity to give back, and that's when you reach this wall" of visa limits.

 

Two visions in debate

Immigration advocates have stepped up efforts to influence policy, staging rallies, reaching out to representatives, speaking out on the Senate bill.

By and large, immigrant groups accept the compromise, even though they sought easier and more inclusive reform.

Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, director of immigrant-advocacy group Long Island Wins in Old Westbury, says reform is not only about helping immigrants."We can talk here about the major groups that will benefit, the 11 million, the agribusiness, the high-skilled, the low-skill immigrants, but truly those who will benefit from comprehensive immigration will be all Long Islanders," she said, since a legal system will ensure that "native and immigrant alike is able to contribute fully."

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C., group for immigration restrictions, said the reform bill is "a comprehensive sellout of American workers at all levels and of all skill sets" because of job competition and the resources immigrants absorb.

However, Peter D. Salins, a political science professor at Stony Brook University and author, says the legislation is "more complex" than the debate and represents a workable compromise.

Passage could spur economic growth, while also worsening housing needs in crowded regions, he said, but it's an improvement on a broken system.

"Something has to be done," Salins said. "I don't think many Americans like the idea of any large amount of people, considered lawbreaking, who are just sort of sitting there."

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