Experts discuss the impact of immigration on Long Island

Jessica Parks
Experts discuss the impact of immigration on Long Island at a forum last Thursday. (Photo by Jessica Parks)

One in six Long Islanders were born somewhere other than the United States, according to Patrick Young of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead.

At a forum hosted by Blank Slate Media and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock last Thursday, four experts discussed immigration and how it pertains to Long Island. There are some 526,000 immigrants on Long Island, accounting for almost a fifth of the island’s population, Young said. Of those immigrants, he said about 80,000 are undocumented.

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s Center for Suburban Studies, said Long Island’s immigrant population is “an overwhelming positive” for the area.

He said, “to deny the benefit of immigration to this, or almost any other region is akin to denying climate change.”

Levy said that every study conducted on the benefits and every anecdote brought to his center confirms the benefits immigration brings, not only socially but also economically.

If Nassau County did not have the surge of new immigrants coming in, he said, the county’s population would decrease at a significant rate, which would have adverse effects on hiring.

Lisa Votino-Tarrant, a local immigration advocate who recently volunteered at the border, said, “There is this myth that people coming here are rapists and murderers.”

She said once she got to know asylum seekers at the border, she asked them what they did in their countries and expected to hear stories about vending in the city or manufacturing jobs. Instead, she said she met veterinarians, doctors, teachers and lawyers.

Isma Chaudry, interfaith advocate and chair of the Islamic Center of Long Island, addressed the social insecurity created when Long Islanders view their schools as not having enough resources at the same time immigrant populations are increasing.

Levy described immigration’s impact on Long Island schools as “self-inflicted.” He said while there are 124 school districts on Long Island, 70 percent of minority students are concentrated in 15 percent of the region’s school districts.

“The new immigrants are disproportionately located in a handful of districts that are least able, through resource and experience, to meet their needs,” he said.

Young said that a student he works with, who lives within walking distance of Garden City High School, is bused to Hempstead High School.

He said Long Island does not have public schools but “community-based, economically segregated schools.”

Chaudry spoke of the effects that President Donald Trump’s short-lived Muslim ban had on Long Island’s international students.  

She said a second-year resident at Northwell Health, who is from Pakistan and in the country legally, is afraid to leave the country.

“He is not just one person,” she said. “There are students who are over here who are afraid to go back to their country of origin” because of the Muslim ban.

She said the Muslim ban prevented people from going home and visiting their families because of the fear that they wouldn’t be allowed to come back in the country.

Trump imposed a ban in January 2017, weeks after taking office, on foreign nationals visiting the county from seven predominantly Muslim states for 90 days. Syrian refugees were banned from entering indefinitely, and refugees from any other country could not enter for a period of 120 days.

A tug of war ensued between Trump and the courts over the legality of his ban, and in June 2018 the Supreme Court upheld a third, narrower iteration of the ban on travel from seven countries in a 5-4 vote. Those countries are Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen.

Steven Blank, editor and publisher of Blank Slate Media and moderator for the forum, asked the panelists what policies could be implemented to resolve the immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Young responded that in the short term, nothing is going to happen in Washington and he thinks it is up to the states and localities.

He discussed the importance of a proposed state program that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license.  Currently, in New York, undocumented immigrants are unable to obtain learner’s permits which means they are unable to legally learn how to drive, Young said.

He added that immigrants who then get into an accident aren’t worried about receiving a ticket, but being arrested and turned over to ICE.

Young said that when California allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, the number of hit-and-runs went down 7 percent.

Until about 2005, New York never checked immigration status as a part of applying for a driver’s license, he said.

Susan Gottehrer, director of the Nassau County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said out of Long Island’s state legislators only Assemblywoman Taylor Raynor (D-Hempstead) and Assemblyman Anthony D’Urso (D-Port Washington) have announced support for the proposed driver’s license program.

She said that Long Island’s senators have said that they will not vote for the program unless they hear from their constituents.

Votino-Tarrant said from personal experience that there was “absolutely a crisis at the border” and “it has to do with how we are treating asylum seekers.”

She said she worked with a 4-year-old girl who had been locked in a cage for four days. “Just to be clear,” she said, “our country did that.”  

Young added that his fiancee had been involved with taking in a family that was reunited after their separation at the U.S.-Mexico border. He said his fiancee asked the mother if she could take the son in to get him washed up, to which the mother began hysterically crying. Young said the mother then told his fiancee that when she and her son were taken by border control “a nice woman came in and said I am going to take your son in the shower and I didn’t see him again for 52 days.”

Votino-Tarrant said while at the southern border she had to write parent’s names and contact information on the backs of six-week-old infants because the government claimed that they had no idea who the parents of the infants were.

The final question fielded by the panelists was what the problem was with deporting immigrants who did not come into the country legally.

Young responded that he thinks “it is unrealistic to think that you are going to deport 11 million people.” He said former President Barack Obama had the most deportations in history at the time and “yet we still have undocumented immigrants.”

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