Immigrants are essential to Long Island's economy because of the jobs they fill and the vibrancy they bring to communities, business leaders and advocates said at a Patchogue church Monday during a panel discussion on the contentious issue.
The forum showed growing consensus for an immigration system overhaul along principles crafted by the U.S. Senate and the White House and a change in tone among Long Island leaders on both sides.
"This is the exact right time for a forum and a discussion of this type," said Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton). "We have a real shot here at building a case for comprehensive immigration reform . . . first off from the perspective of what is humane" but also considering "what is in our economic interests as a country."
Even a critic of illegal immigration like Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who was not at the forum, is considering change.
"I would support immigration reform" that would encourage legal immigration, King said Monday in a telephone interview, but only "if we can definitely show that there is going to be a secure border, as secure as it can be, not just going through the motions."
The event was organized by immigrant advocates from the Long Island Civic Engagement Table and Long Island Wins and Spanish-language newspaper Noticia.
Speakers met at the same Congregational Church of Patchogue that held the funeral of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero, killed in a hate crime incident in 2008.
Broad consensus did not translate into total agreement on specifics.
Businesses from agriculture to high-tech sectors seek temporary workers, while labor leaders want permanent legalization.
But Long Island Association chief executive Kevin Law said a bill could help both sides.
"There could be enough things in the legislation that it will get the support of the business community and then we'll sort of lay low on the issues that may be of concern to labor," Law said.
Roger Clayman, executive director of the Long Island Federation of Labor, conceded that despite guest workers having "been misused in almost vast slave labor camps" this is the most progress he's seen this decade on an immigration deal.
"To get some agreement on basic principles, mostly related to guest workers, is a great step forward," he said.Town of Babylon Councilman Tony Martinez, who was in the audience, said the willingness of competing interests to concede ground is promising.