Two dozen immigrant advocates, sensing they were close to a breakthrough after years of calling for immigration reform, celebrated in Brentwood Thursday, hours before the U.S. Senate voted to approve a bill that included a path to citizenship.
"History is happening today," said Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, of Long Island Wins, an immigrant advocacy group in Old Westbury. "Today's Senate vote is an important step forward, moving millions of immigrants into a responsible system" to work and pay taxes.
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The bipartisan plan, which includes streamlined visa programs, stronger border security and mandatory status checks by employers, passed in a 68-32 vote shortly after 4 p.m.
Elizabeth Ulcuango, an Ecuadorean immigrant on a temporary work permit in Patchogue, had tears in her eyes.
"I can't even describe the emotion," said Ulcuango, 40. With reform, she added, "we could have more dignified lives and have our rights, because now we are mostly in hiding."
More than 11 million immigrants have overstayed visas or crossed the border illegally -- and tens of thousands could seek permanent residency on Long Island, advocates said.
"It's going to be extremely important for this community, but it's also going to be important for every Long Islander" who wants "a reasonable solution," said Patrick Young, of the Central American Refugee Center, based in Hempstead.
For Barrett Psareas, who opposes a citizenship path and new visa programs, the Senate vote was discouraging. "It's detrimental to the country. We are talking about possibly 33 million people coming in a decade," said Psareas, vice president of the Nassau County Civic Association, a community advocacy organization.
The policy battle now moves to the House of Representatives. One of the signs immigration advocates held at their rally called on local congressional representatives to act: "King, Bishop, McCarthy, Israel: Now it's your turn!"
Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said after the Senate vote that it would be "a dereliction of duty" if House Republicans don't take on a matching bill. "Long Islanders and all Americans deserve to have their lawmakers vote on this critical piece of legislation."
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) signaled compromise, saying that since "security provisions of the bill have been strengthened and improved," he hopes the House would consider immigration reform this session.