Late last month Long Island became the first suburban region to summon leaders from the business, nonprofit, labor and government sectors around the issue of immigration.
Citing increasingly higher hurdles for immigrants seeking documentation, and the essential nature of immigrant workers to the economy, Long Island Wins and the Long Island Immigrant Alliance organized the sit down at SUNY College at Old Westbury to hash out issues that have, in some fatal and ugly cases, put Long Island in headlines nationwide.
“The event was especially important because the federal government is doing nothing regarding immigration policy,” said Glen Cove attorney David Mejias, president-elect of the Long Island Hispanic Bar Association and summit panelist.
Immigration policy is a political firefight, since all combatants engage in a game of one-up-manship over who’s going to protect the country best, said another panelist, Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, whose members employ 7,000 to 8,000 workers.
“Rather than face reform, the government is putting pressure on employers to be in compliance, which increases the cost of doing business,” Gergela said.
About one-fifth of immigrants in Long Island are undocumented, according to a 2007 estimate by the Pew Hispanic Center for the Fiscal Policy Institute. Gergela cited national numbers that stated as much as 60 percent of farm workers are undocumented. “My farmers are gravely concerned about being in compliance,” Gergela said. “We’re not allowed to ask certain questions in an interview, such as immigration status.”
The farm bureau supports a simplified, three-year agricultural visa program promoted by farming groups on a national level, replacing the current one-year “H2A” program for seasonal workers. “The H2A program is expensive and cumbersome, and requires hiring a lawyer,” Gergela said.
The system is more broken than it was just a few years ago, claimed summit panelist Pat Voges, government liaison for the Nassau Suffolk Landscape Gardeners Association, which has more than 1,500 members.
“We have a member that brings in the same workers every year on H2A visas,” Voges said. “He has already paid $8,000, where a couple of years ago he would have paid about $4,000.”
That’s trouble, because seasonal work picks up in March, Voges said, adding one solution is allowing workers to go home at the end of the season if they want and then return without going through the whole paperwork process again.
A major idea discussed at the summit is the creation of a viable path for undocumented workers to achieve citizenship, said Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, executive director of Long Island Wins, an Old Westbury-based nonprofit organization. The path would require workers to learn English, be of good moral character, submit to background checks and pay back taxes and penalties as applicable, Slutsky said. “I think everyone present agreed that there has to be a better way,” she added.
While anti-immigrant activists argue immigrants are taking away jobs from American workers, it’s not the case in the agriculture industry, Gergela said.
“If you put an ad in the newspaper telling people they’re going to work from sunup to sundown in the rain and the heat of the summer, you’re not going to get too many responses,” he said.
Many service jobs also go begging by American workers, argued Gemma de Leon, executive vice president of the Westbury-based Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, Local 1102.
“There is downward pressure on the wages and benefits of service jobs, leading to a need for recent immigrants, who don’t have a lot of options, to fill them,” de Leon said.
Participants in the summit were asked to keep the momentum going, Slutsky said.