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Panelists: LI immigration study should help calm debate

A study showing immigrant workers are an important foundation for Long Island's economy should help bring reason to a debate that is often ruled by raw emotion, panelists at a Hofstra University conference said Wednesday.

"It's important, without taking a position based on ideology . . . that we understand the impact of immigrants, not just the stereotype," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra's National Center for Suburban Studies. The center co-sponsored the conference on the Fiscal Policy Institute's report, which examined immigrants' impact on U.S.-born workers' employment and wages during three growth years - 1990, 2000 and 2007.

Among the report's conclusions was that immigrants fit into the local economy without displacing U.S.-born workers. It found that unemployment rates for most of the native-born workers - with the exception of black men with a high school education or less - either remained stable during those three years, or fell slightly.

"The facts do matter," said David Dyssegaard Kallick, lead author of the institute's report. "The intensity of anti-immigrant backlash prevents us from solving legitimate questions."

The Rev. Patrick Duggan, a former Nassau deputy county executive who now runs Abundant Communities Together, a faith-based community development corporation in Hempstead, said anti-immigrant sentiment based on myths too often results in "knee-jerk" policy. That results in a failure to capitalize on the benefits of immigration, or to zero in on legitimate problems, Duggan said.

Among those concerns, said Omar Angel Perez, executive director of the Workplace Project, an immigrant advocacy group in Hempstead, is that some immigrant workers faced exploitation, such as being underpaid and working in unsafe conditions. The report took note of this issue, calling for a policymakers to create a "strong floor" on wages.

Another panelist, Pearl Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, the region's largest business and civic group, praised the report for providing the most comprehensive information about immigrants' impact on the Island's economy ever seen. "It's important to present facts that can be verified," Kamer said.

She focused on the report's finding that immigrant workers have replenished the Island's workforce, as the number of native-born workers has declined. "Immigrants will contribute to the increased productivity on Long Island by their very presence," the economist said.

Kamer noted there has been a "brain drain" of native-born workers from ages 24 to 45. "This will become more marked as large numbers of baby boomers retire," she told an audience of about 50 students, professors and community activists.

The phenomenon presents policy implications, such as the need for a greater mix of more affordable housing to attract and retain younger workers, Kamer said.

"We have to educate the public that their children and their parents will no longer be able to live here" without such remedies, she said.

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