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Immigration rising to top of U.S. agenda

Delilah Hernandez with Community for Brentwood, holds signs

Delilah Hernandez with Community for Brentwood, holds signs at a rally outside Sen. Charles Schumer's office n Melville. (Jan. 22, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

Immigration reform -- one of the country's most contentious policy issues -- is rising to the top of the national agenda as proposed changes start to take shape in Congress.

The discussion will resonate on Long Island and other locales where population growth spurred by immigrants has fanned tensions over policing, housing and the unlawful employment of undocumented workers.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is already at the negotiating table, where he is likely to play a crucial role in fashioning a compromise between those pushing for legalization programs for some undocumented immigrants and others favoring stricter enforcement of existing laws.

Schumer is part of a bipartisan group of senators developing a framework for legislation. Although he would not discuss specific provisions, Schumer said he's seeking change that would balance opposing interests and garner support in New York.

"Like most Americans, Long Islanders are strongly against illegal immigration, but once they know illegal immigration is curtailed, are in favor of legal immigration," Schumer said in a statement. "The bill we are working on will do just that -- be strong on illegal immigration and be generous with legal immigration."

Schumer and his allies will have to persuade conservative members of Congress, some of whom see echoes of a 1986 "amnesty" program that did not stop illegal immigration.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said talks should focus on improving border security, expanding legal immigration and making it easier for companies to bring skilled workers from abroad.

"I want to see first if we can secure the borders," King said. "Otherwise, we are rewarding those who came here illegally as opposed to those who waited four, five, 10 years to come legally."

Policy experts and Senate and House aides close to the negotiations said they expect months of debate that could start as talks on gun control and the debt ceiling come to a close and last until the legislative session's end in the summer.

The proposal in the works, the aides said, will seek to balance elements found in previous reform efforts and may include provisions to:

Strengthen enforcement by tightening border security and pursuing employment verification checks.

Adjust the levels and types of visa programs, which could combine some element of family reunification with more visas for skilled immigrants.

Provide a way for many of the estimated 11 million immigrants in the United States to become legal residents and have access to a path to eventual citizenship.

How those pieces will fit together is not clear, said policy experts, who describe immigration reform as a "three-legged stool."

"If you don't do all three pieces, then the stool falls over," said David Dyssegaard Kallick, immigration research director at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in New York City. "You have to have some way of dealing with undocumented people here today; you have to think about how to make sure enforcement works and you have to think about future flows" of immigrants.

Advocates say legalization of undocumented immigrants could be a boon to the state as those workers get better wages, pay taxes and are able to access credit and buy property.

Opponents of widespread legalization programs say granting permanent residency would allow more people to qualify for social services and would create more competition for jobs.

"Adding lots of legal, unskilled immigrants to the population is very problematic for taxpayers," said Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that opposes illegal immigration.


President Barack Obama made the issue a priority for his second term and signaled his intentions again in his inaugural address, saying, "Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country."

The president met Friday with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and reaffirmed to them his commitment to pursue reform soon.

Obama has already implemented some changes. While presiding over record deportation levels, he granted "deferred action" to keep young undocumented immigrants from being deported. He also ordered enforcement efforts to focus on immigrants who pose a security threat, have committed crimes or have repeatedly violated immigration law.

Reform would have a significant impact in states with large immigrant communities such as New York, where 4.3 million people from other countries make their home. Estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center, the New York City Department of City Planning and the Fiscal Policy Institute put the population of unauthorized immigrants at 625,000 statewide, a half-million in New York City and about 130,000 in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties combined.


Supporters of paths to citizenship say they are emboldened by November's election results. Hispanics and Asians, who listed immigration reform as a key concern in pre-election polls, overwhelmingly supported Obama.

Even Conservatives have said that Republicans need to back changes to remain a viable option for many voters.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the son of Cuban immigrants and a rising star in the party, said this month on "Fox and Friends" that it's hard to engage voters "if they think you want to deport their grandmother." He proposed increasing enforcement and providing "temporary legal status" to undocumented immigrants pursuing legal residency.

"I hate the fact that we have . . . undocumented people in the United States, but we do and we have to deal with it, because they're not going to leave," Rubio said.

But Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks reduced immigration levels, said: "The president and some of his allies in Congress are going to introduce a bill that essentially is amnesty" for people who have broken the law by entering the U.S. illegally.

"We ought to be enforcing immigration laws the way we enforce all other civil laws," Mehlman said. "The effect of amnesty is going to be that more Americans face more damaging competition from illegal workers."


White House spokesman Jay Carney said during a Friday media briefing that the president will discuss a blueprint for immigration reform during a visit to Las Vegas on Tuesday, adding that "he looks forward to speaking about it . . . and to working with Republicans and Democrats to get it done."

The matter also is expected to be one of the key talking points during the president's State of the Union address in February.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who is on the House Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee, said immigration reform can't keep getting postponed because of the impact existing policies have in some communities.

"One thousand people are deported every day and about half of them live in families with children, so we can't wait and wait and wait for immigration reform to get rolling," Gutierrez said.


Long Island's immigrant advocates are watching the national reform push and planning to lobby the region's congressional delegation and campaign for a citizenship path.

"If they [immigrants] are given a clear path to citizenship, they then can contribute fully," said Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, director of immigrant rights advocacy group Long Island Wins. "They'd be paying all the taxes that they need to pay . . . They would have spending power. They would have earning power."

Hempstead resident Lázaro Damas said he is hoping to be accepted in this country. Damas, 29, was 17 when he left his native Honduras to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

In the 12 years he's lived on Long Island, he has worked in landscaping, construction and restaurant jobs.

He's a single dad to Brandon, 5, a U.S. citizen born on Long Island. His son's prospects are now his most important reason to want to stay and make a life here, Damas said.

"I wish people could see that we don't violate the law because we want, but because we have to," Damas said in Spanish. "I came to work hard."

The chance at a deportation reprieve under Obama's "deferred action" policy and the promise of wider reforms have given him hope, Damas said.

"Being able to have that document," he said, "would be like winning a prize."


4.3 million: total number of immigrants living in New York State

625,000: estimated number of unauthorized immigrants in New York State

130,000: estimated number of unauthorized immigrants in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties

Sources: Pew Hispanic Center, New York City Department of City Planning and the Fiscal Policy Institute

Possible elements of immigration plan in the works

The proposal in the works will seek to balance elements found in previous reform efforts and may include these provisions:

ENFORCEMENT: strengthening enforcement by tightening border security and pursuing employment verification checks.

VISA ENTRY: adjusting the levels and types of visa programs, which could combine some element of family reunification with visas for skilled immigrants.

LEGALIZATION: providing a way for many of the estimated 11 million immigrants in the United States to become legal residents and have access to a path to eventual citizenship.

Source: Senate and House aides

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