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Dawidziak: LI could be immigration leader

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman speaking

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman speaking during the "Long Island Regional Immigration Summit" at SUNY Old Westbury. (April 20, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Michael Dawidziak is a political consultant and pollster.

Long Island has been in the forefront of many issues of national importance.

In 1971, Suffolk County became the only local government in the country that imposed a ban on household detergents containing phosphates. Suffolk also introduced the first "bottle bill" in the state, establishing a refundable deposit in 1981. A year later, New York followed suit with a statewide bill. In 2001, Suffolk's laws requiring education about and public access to automated external defibrillators resulted in their being mandated in all schools throughout the state. And, of course, Long Island is the only region in the world to ever successfully shut down a nuclear power plant before it ever really got started.

Now, a group of prominent Long Island business, labor and community leaders are tackling another hot issue of national prominence: immigration policy . . . or the lack thereof. The Long Island Regional Immigration Summit was held recently at the College at Old Westbury. The summit was put together under the leadership of Maryann Sinclair Slutsky of Long Island Wins and Luis Valenzuela of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, two local advocacy groups. With this summit, Long Island became the first suburban region to organize a cross-section of stakeholders interested in formulating immigration policy recommendations that will aid the region's economic growth.

Much as we have a need for a comprehensive national energy policy, we have been waiting for decades for our federal government to come up with a sensible immigration policy. One thing we know for certain is that our current policy of doing nothing is detrimental -- if not suicidal. The federal government isn't going to deport all the undocumented aliens. The only reasonable approach is to establish a pathway to citizenship that incorporates them into the system.

To those who say that this would be rewarding people who didn't follow the rules, what's the alternative? Besides, nobody said that a pathway to citizenship would or should be easy.

More important, it's time for all of us to look in the mirror and lower the volume on the debate. How many of our own ancestors technically broke the rules when coming through Ellis Island? When they were asked about their literacy, job skills, their health, how much money they had or if they had relatives waiting for them, how many simply lied to get into the country? Employing the same standards, many critics of a pathway to citizenship would have denied entry to their own grandparents.

The summit's keynote speaker, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, gave an intelligent, rousing speech. He took dead aim at Arizona's SB 1070 law, the broadest and strictest anti-illegal immigration measure on the books, as an affront to the American concept of "equal justice under the law."

What's more, our broken immigration laws do nothing to help our economy in a time of fiscal crisis. As a rule, we don't even admit entrepreneurs who want to start companies and create jobs.

The summit participants not only targeted problems, but also had some commonsense proposals. One was to cut the red tape for the H2 visa system for seasonal workers, which would help take away the incentive for employers to cheat. Another was a three-year renewable visa for farm workers, who don't threaten one citizen's job.

In the end, all immigration reform has to come from the federal government. But Long Island could again lead the way by offering suggestions that could bring real progress and economic development.