Many Long Island immigrants and advocates are placing hope in President Barack Obama’s promise “to fix as much of our immigration system” as he can through an executive order that could shield from deportation many living in the country illegally.
Others say the order — which according to early reports would give unauthorized immigrants legal status but would not make them permanent residents — will stir backlash.
Reform opponents already have voiced objection to a blanket dispensation, while some, including Long Island’s two Republicans elected to Congress, believe immigration policy should stem from compromise and do not agree with Obama’s use of executive power.
The expected plan, which could apply to as many as 5 million people, would have a significant impact in Nassau and Suffolk counties, where advocates say an estimate of 100,000 immigrants lack legal status. The most anticipated provision would give some parents of children born in the United States a chance to stay and obtain work permits.
“It would be the largest transition from undocumented to documented on Long Island of any action in the modern history of immigration law,” said Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead and Brentwood.
But David Sperling, an immigration attorney in Central Islip, said the president’s push “sends the wrong message.” The Nov. 4 election — in which Republicans made considerable gains, including a U.S. Senate majority — “showed a lot of people don’t agree with President Obama’s policy,” he said.
Young, however, noted that the change would make those immigrants part of the legal labor force, with positive effects. Their income would be taxed, and they would be able to seek driver’s licenses.
“We expect they’ll see a fairly immediate increase in wages,” he said, which could move families “from poor to working class.”
The order would follow years of advocacy and pushback, after a stalemate between the then-Democratic-majority Senate and the House of Representatives. Obama said as early as June that he was considering acting on his own, saying “the failure of House Republicans to pass a darn bill is bad for our security, it’s bad for our economy, and it’s bad for our future.”
But Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), re-elected on a platform that included support for a path to citizenship, said lack of bipartisan progress is no excuse for the president going solo.
“Well, he’s not a dictator,” King said. “I mean, Congress doesn’t have to do what the president wants. And if he felt that strongly about it, he should have raised it as a campaign issue this year.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), newly elected to his seat, said the president should give Congress a chance “to find common ground” on smaller immigration bills. “Fundamentally, I will always oppose the use of an executive order that seeks to take the place of multiple branches of government,” he said.
A battle will ensue if Obama acts unilaterally, said Rosanna Perotti, a political science professor at Hofstra University.
“That’s a strategy fraught with difficulty for the president and the Democrats,” Perotti said. “It’s a short-term declaration of war, meaning that from now to December and until the beginning of the new Congress, the Republicans are going to attempt to put obstacles in front of him on spending bills and all sorts of measures.”
Asian and Hispanic immigrant communities, and their growing electorates, see the president’s proposed action as “a down payment” on wider reforms, advocates said.
“These children who are American citizens, every day they live in fear that for some ridiculous reason their parents could be picked up and deported,” said Maryann Slutsky of the immigrant advocacy group Long Island Wins.
A 40-year-old Mexican immigrant in Farmingville, who is a member of the advocacy group Make the Road New York but asked that her name be withheld, said her and her husband’s sons, ages 8 and 12, and daughter, 14, were born on Long Island and live with that anxiety.
“The children ask us why don’t we go to other places, to visit family or travel, and we tell them it’s because we don’t have papers,” the woman said in Spanish. “I would like for that to end, for their sake.”
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