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Advocates, officials eye immigration reform

Immigration advocates will gather in Manhattan and in communities across the country Wednesday, pushing for reform and legalization as they strive to get the contentious issue back in the national spotlight.

With a bill introduced in the House of Representatives last month and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) working on separate legislation, some advocates view the issue as gaining momentum - but experts and politicians say a solution this year is unlikely, particularly given the unresolved health care legislation.

Still, advocates remain determined. Saul Linares, 31, of Hempstead, is part of a group from Long Island that will attend Wednesday's rally at Judson Memorial Church. Once a day laborer, Linares now helps organize day laborers. "We are trying to send a message to Congress," Linares said. "This can get out of the shadows millions of immigrant workers in America."

President Barack Obama has pledged to take up immigration reform, efforts that failed twice under former President George W. Bush.

Last month, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) introduced a bill that would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants who meet certain conditions.

"I don't think it's realistic to say that immigration reform will be achieved within the next few months, but we can't continue to turn our backs on it," said Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), the sole member of the Long Island delegation who signed on as a co-sponsor.

Schumer's bill, which is still being crafted and expected to be the starting point for serious discussions, is expected to include tougher penalties for undocumented immigrants who want to become legal, and more stringent standards for eligibility.

Not everyone is pushing for change. On the other side are those like Elaine Kahl, chairwoman of the Suffolk County Coalition for Legal Immigration/No Amnesty. "We're totally against amnesty," said Kahl, of Southampton. "We feel very strongly that . . . people that have entered this country illegally should not get a reward for breaking our laws."

Close to home, some advocates worry about the debate's impact on Suffolk County, where the issue of immigration has long struck a chord, resulting in violence, even deaths.

"That's what we're very troubled about," said Patrick Young, director of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead. "After the 2007 debate, because immigrants were vilified, we definitely saw a perceptible uptick in anti-immigrant sentiment - on Long Island and elsewhere."

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