Long Island immigrants who for years feared deportation, say they’re encouraged by President Joe Biden’s plan to create a route toward citizenship for millions like them because they are ready to be called Americans.
"I am thankful for what I’ve received, but should I get a path to citizenship — I would be ecstatic," said Andrey Garro, 31, of Hampton Bays. "I would finally have a voice in this country," he said. "The only thing that stops me is paperwork. This is basically my country. I grew up here. I was taught here. Now English is my dominant language. "
Garro is Costa Rican and one of several Long Islanders who spoke to Newsday because they entered the country illegally, live here now without legal status, or have at some point in their lives. Most expressed exhaustion from the constant threat of deportation, and said they had paid their dues, including paying some taxes, while not receiving benefits such as unemployment, certain tax breaks, being able to vote, and health care coverage.
An estimated 89,000 immigrants lived without legal status on Long Island in 2018, the second most in the state behind only New York City’s 490,000, according to the Center for Migration Studies based in Manhattan.
Garro was granted temporary protection in 2013 under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which safeguards from deportation some immigrants brought to the country as children. His family arrived here on visitor visas when he was 5. The visas expired after one year, Garro said.
Biden is touting a bill allowing the estimated 11 million immigrants who entered the country illegally, or overstayed their legal entry, to apply for legal status if they meet certain background checks and pay taxes.
Any immigrant without proper paperwork could qualify if they’ve been in the country since Jan. 1. The proposal offers an eight-year trajectory toward citizenship while prioritizing some immigrants to immediately receive green cards.
They include farmworkers, individuals who have been granted provisional relief from designated countries going through armed conflict, recovering from natural disasters or destabilized by other crises, a program known as TPS.
The plan also calls for distribution of green cards to DACA recipients — commonly called Dreamers.
"I’m happy to have a president who supports immigrants," said Tomas, 58, of Brentwood.
He has been living on Long Island without legal status since 1987. Tomas fled El Salvador during a civil war, after serving in his country’s army, but then became prey to a rebel group that was against the government and trying to recruit him, he said in Spanish. On U.S. soil, Tomas has lived 34 years with deportation often on his mind.
"It’s something I live with, this constant fear. You can’t live freely," he said. "I try not to go out too much. I go to church. I stay home."
Tomas said his family paid a coyote $1,800 to get him to the California border. He’s worked at a shipping factory for more than three decades where they make nuts and bolts. When he came to Long Island in the late 1980s, he was paid $4.25 per hour, and now makes almost $18 per hour, Tomas said.
"I liked how I could do better here economically. I could help my family more than in El Salvador," he said.
The Latham-based Fiscal Policy Institute released a study last week noting an economic boost to New York if Biden’s immigration bill becomes law. The study said the average immigrant family’s income without legal status, meaning no one holds work authorization or citizenship, is $33,000. That figure would increase to $39,500 per immigrant family if these immigrants are granted citizenship, the report said. Granting citizenship to New York's unauthorized population could add about $300 million to the economy through state and local taxes, the report concluded.
A prosperous future was why Narcy, 26, of Central Islip, emigrated to Long Island while pregnant with a boy in 2016.
"I wanted the best for him," she said in Spanish.
Narcy fled her native Honduras, with the urging of her parents, because her father, a bus driver, had been held at gunpoint by gang members and feared for his safety, she said. She entered the country on a tourist visa, which expired, she said.
Narcy, who before the pandemic worked at a bakery for $12 per hour, also has a 2-year-old daughter. She is cautiously optimistic about Biden’s bill, Narcy said.
"It doesn’t feel real," she said. "It would change everything."
Sarah Pierce, an analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington D.C., said Biden’s bill has an uphill climb because there were so many other issues that could take priority, specifically, fighting COVID-19 and strengthening the economy. Biden also is unlikely to garner at least 10 votes from Republican senators needed to move it through the chamber.
"Biden’s bill will have a really difficult pass through Congress," Pierce said. "This bill, which is very aggressive, is no doubt an opening salvo. I fully expect it to be negotiated."
Some immigration opponents see Biden’s plan as bad policy.
Lora Ries, senior research fellow for homeland security with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C., falls into that category. The proposal is "rewarding lawbreaking" and is a "non-starter," Ries said.
"It sets to erase the line between legal and illegal immigration," she said. "It increases competition between Americans who are trying to get back to work in a COVID economy."
Garro, however, said immigrants without legal status deserved to remain here because they contribute value.
Garro graduated from St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue with a bachelor’s in adolescent education and is working toward completing his master’s at Stony Brook University in Spanish education. He previously taught math in the Southampton School District. He said attaining DACA, which he must renew every two years, allowed him to earn the proper teaching certification so he could land education jobs. It also opened other doors, he said.
Garro, who now works as a waiter and tutor, said critics who contended immigrants like him and his family skipped to the front of the immigration line didn’t understand a complicated bureaucracy.
"We may have not followed the rules to a tee, but the rules are broken," Garro said. "They are skewed toward some countries more than others. My parents did what any parents would do to make sure their kids would have a better future."