Long Island voters weigh immigration issues ahead of polling day

Student activist group HOLA campaigns for immigration reform and the passage of the DREAM Act at Presidential Debate in Hempstead.
Student activist group HOLA campaigns for immigration reform and the passage of the DREAM Act at Presidential Debate in Hempstead.

Student activist group HOLA campaigns for immigration reform and the passage of the DREAM Act at Presidential Debate in Hempstead.

“He’s going to help us in some way, in some different way than the others do.”

Jose` Zazo, 28, immigrated to Mineola, New York from Tegocigalpa, Honduras seven years ago and rests his hopes of citizenship on the shoulders of President Barack Obama this election.

“We’re going to see [immigration reform] in the future and how it’s going to work.  But I hope that it will be real because we are all waiting for that.”

Immigration reform

Reform was a buzzword during the second presidential debate on Hofstra University’s campus Tuesday, Oct. 16.  And while the candidates’ talk of reform may feel like just that, talk, to those like Zazo waiting for tangible change, the portrait of immigration in our nation today couldn’t be more real in the debate’s Long Island backdrop.

According to Long Island Wins, a local nonprofit interested in solving current immigration issues, both documented and undocumented immigrants make up 16 percent of the population on Long Island and account for 17 percent of the total economic output.

“All Long Islanders, all Americans, need to be speaking out more thoroughly on immigration reform,” says Mary Anne Slutsky, Executive Director of Long Island Wins.  “We know that immigration reform that maximizes the contributions of immigrants, reform with an earned path to citizenship for people who are willing to work hard, learn English will make Long Island and the entire country richer and make all of us better off,” says Slutsky.

Business before immigration for some

Others, like Ronkonkoma resident and Guatemalan immigrant Obdulio De Leon, relate to immigrant needs but are frankly unimpressed by what’s been done and are less optimistic about the future for immigrants.  He plans to vote for Romney this election.

“In the immigration topic the candidates are not doing a good enough job, so I’m looking more in the economy first because as a business owner, I’m paying a lot of taxes and it’s hurting me.”

De Leon is in the minority of Latino voters this election.  A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center found Latino registered voters plan to vote for Obama over Republican challenger Romney by 69% to 21%.

Parallel issues

But Long Island contextualizes the issues debated by Obama and Romney and the economy and immigration seem to parallel each other as issues crucial to voters.

“Of course, the economy and making sure that everyone has access to a good job is at the forefront of everyone’s mind,” says Daniel Altschuler, Community Organizer for Make the Road New York, a membership-led grassroots immigrant rights organization based in Brentwood.

“But immigrants are also particularly concerned with issues like: 1) ensuring that government offices ensure translation and interpretation for Limited-English proficient people, 2) passing the DREAM Act to give undocumented youth the ability to stay in this country and go to college, and 3) breaking the link between local police and immigration enforcement.”


Passing the DREAM Act is a huge stepping stone towards comprehensive immigration reform advocated for by many immigrants.  The two presidential candidates differ in their position on the legislation, though.  Romney opposes the DREAM Act and while Obama supports it, he failed to carry through his 2009 campaign promise to pass the DREAM Act in his current term.

What he did do, though, is pass the Deferred Action for Child Arrival (DACA).

“That’s the closest step and that’s not a complete step, it’s just a drop in the bucket to what is really needed,” says Slutsky.  “Passing Deferred Action was a great first step. It was a small step, but it was a great first step.  And sometimes we have to take baby steps.”

‘A good first step’

DACA established that certain immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and meet several key guidelines may request deferred action and the eligibility for work authorization for a period of two years, subject to renewal.  Similar to the DREAM Act, with one key difference, it’s not permanent.

The Pew Research Center reports up to 1.7 million of the 4.4 million unauthorized immigrants ages 30 and under could potentially benefit from Obama’s program.

“I think it’s a very good step, not only for me, not only for the people but for all United States,” explains Zazo.  “Because we come here from other countries we know already that this country is especially made up of immigrant people from all around the world and we are going to get a lot of benefits from that.”

The election establishes much for the next four years for immigrants and the presidential debate on Long Island is simply ripple in the tidal wave of the immigration reform debate at large.