Credit: TMS illustration by M. Ryder/TMS illustration by M. Ryder

Maryann Sinclair Slutsky is the executive director of Long Island Wins and Luis Valenzuela is the executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance. Both organizations are advocacy groups.


It's a suburban legend that happens to be true: When Robert Moses, the titan of city planning, designed the transportation infrastructure that opened much of Long Island for development, he made certain that bridges passing over the parkways would be low enough to prohibit buses from passing under them easily. It wasn't just aesthetics, it was social engineering. By keeping buses off the parkways, Moses discouraged people of color -- who, at the time, were largely dependent on public transit -- from visiting or relocating to Long Island.

The contradictions and conflicting goals Moses embodied for more than a half century remain unresolved; Long Island continues to be a place that welcomes change and provides opportunity, at the same time that it puts up barriers to those opportunities.

Overpasses or not, people still come to Long Island in search of the American dream, but now they're coming from other parts of the world. Newcomers from the Caribbean, the Middle East, Europe and Latin America help fuel the economic engine of our development, opening businesses, bolstering our workforce and paying taxes as aging native-born residents retire.

The vital role of immigrant businesses hasn't escaped the notice of industry leaders on Long Island. The economic impact of those businesses will be the central topic of discussion today at the Long Island Regional Immigration Summit, an event organized by the advocacy groups Long Island Wins and the Long Island Immigrant Alliance. Stakeholders from health care, education, agribusiness and labor will consider how economic success is intrinsically linked to welcoming immigration policies.

From 1990 to 2007, the number of U.S.-born Long Islanders here between ages 20 and 34 decreased by 222,000, or 39 percent, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute. During that same period, the number of foreign-born people in that productive age group on Long Island grew by 40,400. These new Long Islanders are starting businesses, paying taxes, and renewing our economy and culture.

Long Island has the potential to become the nation's model of diversity -- a place that continues to draw some of the world's best, brightest and hardest-working. But doing that requires commonsense immigration policies at the federal, state and local level.

While Long Island has benefited from demographic growth in Latino, African-American and Asian communities in recent decades, many policies that affect those residents are working against them, like modern-day Moses overpasses.

Zoning policies that inhibit the development of rental and multiunit housing is one example. Communities of color are growing, but there are few affordable housing options. As a result, many newcomers become segregated in specific neighborhoods. That's one of the factors that leads to segregated schools, and on Long Island, the effect is especially noticeable: Latino and African-American children make up 90 percent of the students in high-poverty school districts. These students are Long Island's future entrepreneurs and executives, but we're not giving them the skills that they need to succeed.

We know that our federal immigration system is outdated, serving neither the needs of immigrant workers nor the businesses that employ them. We know that innovative minds from around the world would love to come to America, and to Long Island, but they can't or don't because of our broken immigration system. A common refrain in the immigration debate is for people to "get in line." But for workers coming from many countries, there's virtually no pathway to citizenship -- yet our economy depends on the labor they provide. Federal immigration law needs to change, but there's almost no chance of that during an election year. Instead, we need to adjust state and local policies to make Long Island more attractive to newcomers, and the economic power they bring.

We want a Long Island that builds bridges not to exclude, but to unite. So we can grow stronger together.