American Renaissance

Long Island Major Gateway for Immigrants

The newcomers boom in the '90s rivals that of large U.S. cities, but the new wave has created growing pains

Bart Jones, (NYC), Mar. 10

Long Island’s immigrant population boomed in the 1990s, growing at a faster rate than New York City’s and putting Nassau and Suffolk on the national map as a major immigrant destination, according to a new study by the Brookings Institution.

Long Island’s immigrant population of 396,939 as counted by the 2000 Census is the 18th largest in the United States and rivals the number of foreign-born residents of cities such as Boston and San Francisco, the study found.

“It’s got more immigrants than Philadelphia. It’s got more immigrants than Detroit,” said the study’s author, Audrey Singer. “Like it or not, Long Island is an immigrant gateway.”

The nearly 400,000 immigrants translates into 14.4 percent of Long Island’s population, or 1 in every seven of the region’s 2.7 million people.

The study, called “The Rise of Immigrant Gateways,” identified and examined the 45 largest concentrations of immigrants in the United States. It pegged Los Angeles at No. 1 with 3.5 million people and New York City at No. 2 with 3.1 million.

Like many parts of the nation, Nassau and Suffolk’s foreign-born population boomed in the '90s, growing by 45.1 percent during the decade. That compares to 37.3 percent in New York City and 57.4 percent nationwide.

Immigration experts say the study, released last week, underscores a central paradox about Long Island: While its foreign-born population is large and growing, many residents still do not perceive their communities as major destinations for immigrants. “The Long Island legacy really is a legacy of trying to define itself as the antithesis of New York [City] and therefore not as an immigrant location,” said Sara Mahler, author of “Salvadorans in Suburbia,” a study of the Salvadoran community on Long Island.

“Fundamental to its self-identity is … ‘We are the American Dream achieved,’ and in that process dropping the association with immigration and leaving that for New York City. That’s New York City’s job,” Mahler said.

Singer echoed her thoughts. “Everybody knows that New York City and the boroughs are full of immigrants,” she said. “But not everybody knows that about Long Island, or is willing to see it.”

The clash between reality and perception is generating important implications for policy-makers on Long Island, who some experts say have largely failed to grasp the shift in demographics or address the issues it raises. They contend this disconnect has fueled problems such as the 2000 attack on two Mexican day laborers from Farmingville that left them nearly dead.

“We have an immigrant population just a little bit below places like Boston and San Francisco and yet neither of our counties have offices of immigrant affairs,” said Patrick Young, head of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance. Boston’s immigrant population was 508,279 in 2000, while San Francisco’s was 554,819.

“Our policy-makers have failed to understand what the emerging demographic really is and have completely failed to make efforts, particularly in Suffolk County … to do the sorts of things that need to be done so that the immigrant community is fully integrated,” Young said.

Newly installed Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy agreed more should be done. “There hasn’t been enough outreach to the immigrant population that is trying to establish a home here and acclimate into society through proper legal channels,” he said.

Some newcomers are undocumented, meaning they entered the country illegally, but Young and other experts including Roy Fedelem of the Long Island Planning Board say Census and federal immigration service data show the vast majority of immigrants on Long Island — between 75 percent and 85 percent — are here legally.

While many Long Islanders have a general sense the face of the region is changing, the 35-page Brookings study for the first time details the scope of the growth and how it compares nationally. It defines immigrants as people born in a country other than the United States, no matter how long ago they came to this country.

The survey found Long Island’s immigrant population grew from 8.8 percent of the population in 1980 to 14.4 percent in 2000. That’s about the same level New York City was at in 1970, when immigrants made up 17.3 percent of its population. The figure zoomed to 33.7 percent by 2000.

A record 11 million immigrants arrived on America’s shores in the '90s, mainly from Latin America and Asia. Many went to suburbs rather than cities, often settling in places with little or no history of immigration.

Many of the recent newcomers to Long Island were drawn by a booming economy, especially service-sector jobs including everything from bus boys to physicians’ assistants to information technology workers, said Matt Crosson, president of the Long Island Association, the area’s largest business and civic organization. “They’re not just mopping floors,” he added.

The study also found Long Island’s immigrant population is much more diverse than commonly thought and not just mainly Latinos including Mexican day laborers. While El Salvador is the No. 1 sending country, Italy is No. 2 and India is No. 3. Germany, Poland and Korea are in the top 10, too, along with Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Colombia.

And day laborers, whose numbers range from 1,000 to 3,000 on any given day, make up a tiny fraction of the overall immigrant populace of 400,000 people, Young said.

The influx is touching all corners of Long Island. While there are some concentrations such as Indians in Hicksville and Salvadorans in Hempstead and Brentwood, the newcomers also are spread out all over the Island, Young said. “The immigrant flow is to virtually every area on Long Island,” he said.

In Farmingdale, where debate has erupted over day laborers, emotions on both sides are running high. “This is an invasion that’s been destroying our health care system, our educational system, and the urban infrastructure,” said Mary Ann Kuhlenkamp, 55, a resident for 45 years in Farmingdale. “Long Island is crumbling from out-of-control immigration. … It grieves me. It’s breaking my heart.”

But another resident, Claire Rose, 81, said the influx of immigrants warms her heart. “I think that’s how America was built,” she said. “Most of us are offspring of immigrants … We are a nation of immigrants.”

Long Island is not the only place in the country grappling with rapidly shifting demographics. Besides traditional gateways such as New York City and fading gateways such as St. Louis, Singer’s study also identified new immigration hot spots.

In Atlanta, for instance, the foreign-born population soared by 817 percent between 1980 and 2000. In Raleigh-Durham, N.C., the figure was 709 percent. Other places where immigration boomed in the same period were Las Vegas (637 percent), Greensboro-Winston-Salem, N.C. (621 percent), Salt Lake City-Ogden, Utah (211 percent) and Washington, D.C. (228 percent).

“The changes in demographics have been enormous in the past 10 years,” said Ross C. Anderson, mayor of Salt Lake City. “I welcome it. I think it’s a great thing.”

Although the number of immigrants who arrived in the 1990s was a record, the total number of immigrants as a percent of the population in the United States did not reach record levels. Immigrants accounted for 11.1 percent of the U.S. population in 2000, compared with 14.7 percent in the 1910s amid a massive influx of newcomers from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Many of the older immigrants, like Frank Perri, are from that region. He arrived on a ship with his father in 1961 after an eight-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. “I was sick like a dog on the boat,” Perri said. “But the boat was beautiful.”

His father went back to Sicily 10 months later, but Perri stayed on. He’s worked as a cook at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown for 28 years.

While Italians are among many of the older immigrants, a large number of newer ones are from Latin America and Asia. One, Pankaj Bavishi, says he came to the United States from India five years ago, earned two master’s degrees, and then settled down on Long Island — lured by beautiful beaches, safe neighborhoods and a job at Computer Associates.

But the software engineer’s sweetheart was still in India, so in January he went back, got married and returned with her. She arrived here Feb. 4.

“It’s a beautiful place,” said Hemali Bavishi, 24, of Islip Terrace. “I’m enjoying my first snow.”