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From Long Island Wins: April 11, 2012

Dreaming Of College, Waiting For Access

Last year, my son decided to leave his bachelor life behind. He moved in with his longtime girlfriend – now fiancée! – packed up his apartment in New York City, and bought a house back in the Glen Head neighborhood where we raised him. I couldn’t have been happier.

As you know, he’s the exception. Hordes of young people are leaving Long Island and not coming back: a lack of jobs, affordable housing, and entertainment are luring them away: to Brooklyn and Queens, to other parts of the country, and to strange places like Manhattan.

The numbers are unsettling. From 1990 to 2007, the number of native born Long Islanders in prime working age (20-34) decreased by 222,000, or 39 percent, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute. Normally we would depend on these young people to start businesses, raise families, and pay taxes – but they’re just not here.

What’s keeping Long Island from becoming a ghost town is this: immigrants. Immigrants are coming to Long Island from countries around the world – Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America – to follow the American Dream, strengthening our communities and growing our economy. During the same period I mentioned before, the number of foreign born people in prime working age on Long Island grew by 40,400.

That’s been a boon to our troubled economy – as those workers are paying taxes, serving as customers for existing businesses and creating their own businesses, and making Long Island a culturally richer place.

But while immigrant communities have buoyed the Long Island economy, our policies aren’t serving those residents.

One small but important example is state funding for college. Many children of immigrants aren’t eligible for New York State tuition assistance. It doesn’t matter if you were brought to the U.S. as a child, if you grew up here, went to high school here, or if this is the only country you’ve ever known. You’re not eligible.

The New York DREAM Act would change this, making it possible for the estimated 5,500 undocumented students in New York to access state aid. It wouldn’t solve the bigger problem – that there needs to be a way for these students to earn citizenship– but for these talented young people, it’s a sign of hope.

But it’s not just good for the students themselves. It’s a low-cost way to make a serious investment in our future. Students who are bright and committed enough to go to college and interested in staying here will have the means to do so.

When I think about the future of Long Island, I think about my son, and I’m thrilled to have him close by. But I also think of all the other mothers whose kids might stick around thanks to the stronger Long Island the DREAM Act would help create. Let’s make it happen.

Maryann Sinclair Slutsky is the executive director of Long Island Wins, a nonprofit organization that promotes practical immigration solutions that work for everyone, rooted in respect and dignity for all. Visit its website at www.LongIsland Wins.com.