Barack Obama and Mitt Romney disagree sharply on how to overhaul the tangle of laws and regulations designed to curtail illegal immigration and guide the flow of newcomers into the country, and their policies could have a major impact on thousands of undocumented Long Islanders, experts said.
Obama, a Democrat, said he supports comprehensive immigration reform that would allow undocumented immigrants to earn a path to citizenship. He also wants to improve border security and streamline enforcement to focus on people with criminal histories and repeat immigration violations.
He backs DREAM Act bills that would grant legal residency to undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors.
He also has used executive power to defer deportations for many who were brought here illegally before they turned 16.
Obama, who has continued Bush-era policies that led to record deportation levels of some 393,000 people in his first full fiscal year in office, is still seeking to fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to overhaul the immigration system. He blames Republican opposition in Congress for stymying his efforts.
Romney, a Republican, rejects "amnesty to those who've come here illegally." He proposes "self-deportation" for immigrants who have run out of options to work and live in the United States.
He wants to require employers to verify the immigration status of new hires, a measure modeled after a controversial Arizona immigration enforcement law.
He has promised to veto the DREAM Act if it is approved and to end Obama's deferred action program for young undocumented immigrants.
Romney called for a "long-term" solution to illegal immigration, but did not spell out his plans beyond saying he supports a legal pathway for immigrants in military service and wants visas for highly skilled immigrants.
Clash over enforcement
The policy clash in the presidential campaign is largely focused on the estimated 11 million people nationally -- about 625,000 in New York State -- who crossed the border illegally, overstayed visas or entered with fraudulent documents.
Juan Vides, an Oceanside resident from El Salvador, says immigration policy was his deciding factor in picking Obama over Romney.
Vides, who owns a Web design and Internet marketing company, entertained the idea of the country having a businessman in the White House and went to see Romney address Hispanic entrepreneurs in Los Angeles last month.
But Vides, who was brought illegally to the United States as a child and received amnesty during Ronald Reagan's presidency, found Romney's pro-enforcement speech harsh.
"He doesn't believe in amnesty," said Vides, 35. "To me, that's saying you didn't believe in Ronald Reagan, you don't believe in giving immigrants a chance and you don't believe in my own journey to live the American Dream."
Mauricio Gaviria, a U.S.-born citizen of Colombian heritage, says he is much more concerned about the economy and maintaining a strong defense, though he pays attention to immigration issues.
Gaviria, a U.S. Department of Defense employee and staff sergeant with the Air National Guard, petitioned for legal status for his wife and other relatives from Colombia -- and then waited years for the process to unfold. He sees no problem with stricter enforcement and prefers Romney.
"I have a very deep respect for doing things the correct way," said Gaviria, 28, of Ronkonkoma. "I have very low tolerance for people who cheat the system . . . I think people who stay illegally are so selfish that they do not think about the ripple effects of that."
Experts also are split.
Young said Romney has taken "a sharp right turn on immigration." He added that Obama has been "implementing a policy of prosecutorial discretion so that enforcement measures are softened for immigrants who don't have criminal records."
Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, a Washington, D.C., group that seeks lower immigration levels, said Romney's policies appeal to voters who favor strict enforcement.
"Romney made his position clear, which was that illegal immigration hurts American workers, and the way you handle illegal immigration is to take away the jobs magnet," Beck said.
Importance to Latino voters
Despite the polarized debate, the matter remains a marginal issue for many voters.
A Pew Research Center poll in September found that registered voters ranked immigration 12th out of 12 "very important" issues.
Latino voters, however, cited it as their fifth most important issue in a Pew Hispanic Center poll this month. Obama, who was elected with Latino support in swing states including Florida and Colorado, led the poll of Hispanic registered voters with 69 percent to Romney's 21 percent.
Sylvia Manzano, a Houston-based senior analyst with the polling firm Latino Decisions, said her organization's tracking polls have shown consistent Hispanic support for Obama. Among those voters, immigration is surpassed in importance only by "the economy and jobs," Manzano said. Immigration remains "a gateway issue for Latino voters . . . either a sign of welcome or rejection."
Long Islanders who follow the debate closely see immigration as closely related to the economy and jobs.
Barrett Psareas, vice president of the Nassau County Civic Association in Cedarhurst, said illegal immigrants take jobs and dollars out of the local economy.
"If you live on Long Island you know taxes are not cheap, and we are all carrying that burden," he said.
Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, director of immigrant-rights advocacy group Long Island Wins, in Old Westbury, said the nation needs a viable path to citizenship so those workers exit the underground economy.
"A working immigration system and immigrants are essential to maintaining a productive, diverse and flexible workforce," Slutsky said.
No matter who's elected president, any immigration reform deal would require Democrats and Republicans to work together, said Rosanna Perotti, a political science professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead. The next president would have to "set the tone" for that kind of debate.
"The president can help by lending his support," she said, "but it's absolutely not possible to achieve immigration reform without enlightened leadership in Congress and a commitment to compromise."
WHAT OBAMA, ROMNEY WOULD DO
BARACK OBAMA, Democrat
-Supports comprehensive immigration reform that would combine "a pathway for legal status" for undocumented immigrants with improved enforcement measures.
-Would continue Bush-era enforcement policies that include voluntary employment verification checks, increased border patrols and cooperation with local law enforcement to deport undocumented immigrants.
-Implemented a "Deferred Action" program to exempt from deportation young undocumented immigrants brought illegally to the United States before they turned 16 and who had not reached 31 years of age as of mid-June.
-Backs DREAM Act proposals that would grant permanent residency to undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors.
MITT ROMNEY, Republican
-Opposes any amnesty proposals that would allow undocumented immigrants to "cut in line" ahead of legal petitioners.
-Is against DREAM Act proposals that would offer legalization to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors, but says he would welcome a pathway to permanent residency through military service.
-Supports establishment of a mandatory verification system so that employers must check the immigration status of workers they hire.
-Backs "self-deportation" option for immigrants who are out of options to work and live in the U.S., letting them voluntarily exit the country.
Sources: Candidates' speeches and debate statements; candidate websites; news media reports