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County reps get low grades on immigration issues

The ‘grades’ assigned by the groups that were announced Tuesday were mostly low and lower. Photo by Joe Darrow (click for larger version)
August 05, 2010 | 10:29 AM
Several progressive nonprofits awarded low grades to Suffolk legislators at a press event Tuesday that organizers billed as an attempt to "start a conversation" on the relationship between immigration and Long Island's middle class.

Based on research by the Drum Major Institute think tank and with a New York Civil Liberties Union representative speaking in support, the nonprofit Long Island Wins awarded Cs and Ds to 15 of 18 legislators. They praised only three, Legislators Vivian Viloria-Fisher (D-East Setauket) and Ricardo Montano (D-Central Islip), who received Bs, and Duwayne Gregory (D-Amityville), recipient of the only A. "The majority of legislators could be doing more to help the middle class," said LIW Director Maryann Slutsky.

The ratings were based primarily on lawmakers' positions on nine votes specifically concerning migrant-labor and middle-class issues, taken in the 2008-09 session, according to a report issued by LIW and DMI. Legislation included that establishing a program to subsidize home heating for lower income residents, expanding environmental building standards, privatizing the county's health plan, creating a hate-crimes task force, testing an electronic worker immigration-status verification program, requiring that businesses hire only those eligible to work in the U.S. and confirming the residency status of each person in probation.

Lawmakers whose votes aligned with the nonprofits' views — in general, supporting legislation that offers new programs to residents but opposing that which seeks to identify or limit the opportunities of undocumented migrants — at least 40 percent of the time received a D. Cs represented 50 percent alignment, Bs 80 percent and As 90 percent.

The effort can be seen as a follow-up to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y. 2009 report that criticized local race relations and government's treatment of migrants, said Charlotte Koons, a board member of the Suffolk chapter of NYCLU. "The climate here in Suffolk County was, to say the least, an F," Koons said.

The scorecard equated migrant with middle-class interests. "Immigration issues are middle-class issues," Slutsky emphasized.

Migrant workers typically fill "low skilled" jobs in local industries like restaurant, landscaping, housekeeping or construction that middle-class Long Islanders — often "very educated people with much higher skills" seeking jobs further up the income ladder — rely on, according to Slutsky. "Without these workers it would really deplete the economy," she said.

"We need policies that bolster, not undermine, the critical contributions that immigrants make to our community," Slutsky said.

While Viloria-Fisher praised the advocacy and support of LIW, she criticized their methodology. She argued that the voting record doesn't tell the full tale of lawmakers' efforts, leaving out, for example, their work on multicultural events to integrate and promote respect for ethnic communities. Nor should it be read without interpretation by outside observers: The report criticized her for harming its often lower-income beneficiaries by voting to privatize Suffolk's health plan, but Viloria-Fisher said the county workers' union had supported the move and she herself was on the health care plan.

"This is an organization that's not in Suffolk County and didn't take into account anything else we've done," Viloria-Fisher said. She also expressed concern that the groups' presentation could polarize the immigration discussion. "I don't like being divided from my legislative colleagues like this," she added.

"There are many legislators who are working on many different fronts to address the injustices we find in Suffolk County," Viloria-Fisher added.

Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) was among the lowest grade recipients with a D. He said the scorecard's "small, narrow subset of particular votes important to these organizations" has little to do with lowering taxes or protecting the environment and local quality of life that constitute his "strong commitment to our middle class."

And Stern said he couldn't see how some selected issues, like his support for requiring those in Suffolk's probation system to document their immigration status, impact the middle class at all. "Ultimately the only scorecard that matters to me is the one I receive from my constituents," he added.

The scorecard's scope is limited by its 2008-09 time window — it grades departed legislators like Brian Beedenbender and Cameron Alden while ignoring their replacements, Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma) and Tom Cilmi (R-Islip), respectively, who have been in office since January. The report also assigns equal value to each vote, but some legislative efforts have greater impact than others, and some votes require more courage to take.

Case in point: Legislator John Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) received only a C from the pro-immigration groups, but he was nearly expelled from his party in 2007 when he voted against prohibiting day laborers from congregating on county roads while awaiting work. The Smithtown GOP executive committee refused to re-endorse him, citing the vote as one of its major problems with his service, and the incumbent had to win back his place on the ballot through a primary.

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