On Long Island, A New Nation of Immigrants Emerges
Uncommon Journalism speaks with CUNY professor emerita Diana R. Gordon, whose latest book Village of Immigrants examines the socioeconomic impact of Latino workers and students on a small, coastal community in northern Suffolk County.
A NEW WORLD: The coastal East End of Long Island isn’t exactly known for its rich immigrant tradition. However, author Diana R. Gordon makes the argument that the ongoing influx of Hispanic immigrants in northern Suffolk County is emblematic of a national, minority-driven trend that’s revitalizing – and in some cases, resurrecting – small towns throughout the United States. (Photograph courtesy Rutgers University Press)
New York has long been central to the American immigrant experience. Indeed, the very term “American immigrant” conjures up visions of huge ships roaring past the Statue of Liberty and wave after wave of huddled masses pouring out on to the docks of Manhattan.
While Ellis Island may be synonymous with immigration in the United States, Long Island isn’t usually associated with settlers, emigres and migrant workers. Alas, in the suburbs of Suffolk County, an entirely different immigrant story is taking place – and City University of New York professor emerita Diana R. Gordon has been watching it unfurl for quite some time.
Village of Immigrants: Latinos in an Emerging America, published by Rutgers University Press in 2015, is a departure from Gordon’s previous works, which explored subjects such as U.S. drug prohibition policies and efforts to democratize criminal justice in post-apartheid South Africa. Rather, her latest book offers insights into the lives of Hispanic immigrants, many of them unauthorized, who have taken up residence in the tiny village of Greenport – a north fork community within the town of Southold, about 100 miles northeast of NYC.
“The concept flowed from my general observation as I moved around the village,” Gordon told Uncommon Journalism. “Noting the influx of Latinos at a time when local prosperity was on the rise, I began to wonder about whether immigrant-led revitalization was occurring elsewhere in small towns.”
Around the same time, she began volunteer work for a local organization serving low-income Hispanics. She would spend the next four years researching the immigrant boom in and around the vicinity of Greenport; she also listened to the newcomers recount their journeys, and discuss the hardships they faced on a daily basis.
“I wanted to portray the interplay of what went on in the schools, the health center, the neighborhoods, with the struggles and triumphs of individual lives,” she said. “I wanted to describe a local episode in the great demographic drama through a lively, journalistic account of a village undergoing massive change.”
The Death and Rebirth of a Small Town
First settled by the British in the 1600s, Greenport was officially incorporated in 1838. Up until the arrival of the Long Island Rail Road in the middle of the 1800s, the village’s economy largely revolved around whaling and ship-building. That soon gave way to a new commercial economy, with Jewish, Irish and Russian immigrants all finding financial success and last names like Claudio and Corazzini becoming among the most venerated in the village.
Crime and prostitution ran rampant, however, once the Great Depression began. Even after World War II, Greenport continued to fall deeper into economic despair. Businesses tanked, the housing market deteriorated and industry experienced a deep decline. The village reached its symbolic nadir when one of is most iconic local landmarks, Mitchell’s Restaurant, burned down in 1979. The spot would remain little more than charred earth until the 1990s.
“There were certainly tensions over race, drug use, and the housing of Suffolk County welfare clients,” Gordon said. “And many young people moved away – next door to more affluent Southold or 100 miles down the road to the Big Apple.”
Interestingly, Gordon said it was this very economic downturn that set the stage for Greenport’s fairly recent influx of immigrants.
“When federal contracts for minesweepers and submarine chaser dried up at the end of World War II, housing vagrancies provided low-cost rental opportunities, a rarity on Long Island,” she explained. “Social service agencies sent clients to Greenport, Section 8 housing become a source of income for landlords and eventually, the immigrants came.”
The labor market was also open, with job opportunities available in Greenport’s vineyards, farms, downtown restaurants and especially in the houses and gardens of the increasing number of second-home owners in the village. “The initial trickle became a flood as a result of chain migration, the new arrivals sending word home to family and friends that this was a peaceful place to work and live,” Gordon said.
The first wave of immigrants hailed from Mexico, but today, a majority of Greenport’s Latino population are Guatemalan and El Salvadoran, with a considerable Honduran and Colombian presence. According to 2010 census data, at least a third of Greenport’s estimated 2,000 residents are now Hispanic.
The dramatic demographic shift over the last two decades, Gordon said, has greatly reshaped Greenport’s character. But these immigrants have done much more than change the local culture and transform educational and health care services within the community, she said – indeed, they’ve helped reverse the village’s long decline and brought its economy roaring back to life.
Gordon isn’t alone in that belief. David Kapell, who served as Greenport’s mayor from 1995 to 2007, said the new wave of immigrants were at the heart of the village’s drastic turnaround from what The New York Times once described as “a dumpy, corrupt East End dead end” to a once again thriving community, attractive to retirees and day-trippers alike.
As he emphatically puts it, “they’ve saved this town.”
BEARING WITNESS: CUNY professor emerita Diana R. Gordon spent four years working on Village of Immigrants, a 2015 book examining the sociocultural impact of a mass influx of Hispanic immigrants on a small community on Long Island. (Photograph courtesy Rachel Hundert.)
Who are the New Immigrants?
Unlike many Midwestern and Sunbelt communities with large Hispanic populations, modern day Greenport isn’t anchored around agribusiness. Its
population isn’t in free fall – in fact, the village posted a population increase of more than 7 percent in 2010 – and racial hostilities are extremely rare.
To Gordon, the big existential threat to the village is no longer depopulation, but the “vacuity” of resort towns and gated enclaves. “The trend suggests a hollowing out of the essential middle class, leaving rich and poor in an environment of exploitation on one side and dependence on the other,” she stated.
While immigrant employment and consumption may not be closing the gap just yet, Gordon said the Hispanic workforce is nonethless having a positive impact on Greenport’s economy.
By and large, Gordon said the immigrants work in construction, food preparation, landscaping and housecleaning. It is all precarious work, she added, much of it part-time with many of the jobs seasonal. Several immigrants, however, have started their own businesses: restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, hair salons and a number of freelance home improvement and yard work operations.
“They are not concentrating in any one sector of the economy,” Kapell said. “The immigrants are basically reconstituting the middle class.”
Most of the jobs in the secondary labor market, unsurprisingly, are low-wage.
However, some workers are netting pay well above minimum wage – immigrants making $15 to $20 an hour, Gordon said, is not unheard of. According to 2009 household income data, Hispanics in Greenport averaged about
$47,000 a year – an amount two and half times what the average black household in the village takes in.
The estimates, however, could be misleading. “A very common arrangement is a household with a nuclear family plus a couple of single men who may or may not be related to the nuclear family,” Gordon said. “Many families are poor enough that they come to the food pantry every week for free food and to the Catholic Charities outreach center for second-hand clothes.”
For the most part, Gordon said Greenport’s Hispanics remain locked inside ethnic enclaves. This serves several economic advantages, she said, including access to relatively protected work environments and a lower likelihood of being discovered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE.) Many of the adult immigrants do not have educations beyond the eighth or ninth grade and some are functionally illiterate.
“If there is a desire to assimilate, it is not expressed,” Gordon noted. “People are too busy trying to survive.”
From 2011 to 2014, Gordon interviewed roughly 100 residents. They recounted their long, often perilous treks from their homelands to the East End – some of whom risked life and limb boarding Mexico’s infamous “La Bestia” fright trains and evading machete wielding thieves to enter the U.S. Since many of the people Gordon spoke with are unauthorized immigrants, she used pseudonyms to mask the identities of several interviewees.
Most were eager to tell Gordon their tales. Among those she spoke with was “Sofia,” who has cleaned Gordon’s home for 14 years. Unable to obtain a driver’s license, she illegally operates a vehicle insured to someone else; since she cannot get a credit card, she has to carry – rather unsafely – a large wad of $100 bills everywhere she goes. Others interviewed in Village of Immigrants include a Bogota, Colombia transplant who went on to attend Stony Brook University, a Guatemalan woman who operates a fairly successful coffee shop and a Mexican immigrant who, prior to the intensified, post-9/11 travel restrictions, helped fund developments and elections in our home country from within the U.S.
One of the most emotional stories belongs to “Rigoberta,” a Guatemalan mired in poverty who struggled to care for her terminally ill child. At times, she and her husband couldn’t afford to pay for copies of their daughter’s medical transcripts, nor could they add minutes to their phone – a crucial lifeline for medical emergencies.
“I spent a lot of time helping Rigoberta with her disabled child,” Gordon recounted, “so I suffered along with her when the child died.”
Schools, Health Care and Housing
For Greenport’s Hispanic immigrants, accessing education, housing and medical care often poses many challenges.
As of the 2012-13 school year, Hispanics represented about a quarter of Greenport’s high school population and approximately half of all elementary schoolers in the community. While Gordon observed that virtually all immigrant families in the village want their children to pursue post-secondary schools – be it in the form of local community college classes or graduate education in business or architecture – the pathways to higher ed are generally fraught with barriers.
Due to their immigration status, financial aid is virtually unavailable. Those who do manage to enroll frequently drop out because of the difficulty balancing work and school. Many of those who arrive in the U.S. as adolescents find themselves eschewing college, and sometimes even high school, to enter the workforce to help pay of their families’ debts to coyotes – hired “aides” who help individuals enter the U.S.
Enacted in 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has been a “godsend” for some of the local teens and young adults with higher educational dreams, Gordon said. She brings up a young woman who, thanks to the renewable two-year work permit, has been able to pursue a degree in nursing and another immigrant whose sons – no longer deterred by the threat of deportation – are well on their way to starting professional careers.
The policy – which, in the wake of lawsuits from 26 states challenging both its constitutionality and that of the proposed Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program, will now go before the Supreme Court of the United States – isn’t without its limitations, however. While DACA eases the tension of undocumented status, Gordon said the wait for permanent benefits is often a difficult one for youngsters to bear. And not everyone who is eligible for the deferral takes advantage of it. “I know one young woman who hasn’t applied because her undocumented mother is afraid of discovery,” Gordon said, “and another who hasn’t applied because her macho boyfriend doesn’t want her to.”
Quality health care, however, is much more accessible. All immigrant children in Greenport, authorized or not, are covered under New York’s Child Health Plan, and citizens can easily obtain Medicaid services through a state Catholic plan. Those requiring primary care can visit the Greenport Health Center, part of the federal community health centers program, at a very low cost. “If a patient can pay, something can be worked out,” Gordon said. “The local hospital coordinates well with the health center, although doctors in both institutions complain about a lack of resources.”
While unauthorized immigrants are not allowed to purchase insurance under the Affordable Care Act, they may be covered by the federal Migrant Voucher Program, which subsidizes patients working in agriculture. “But Obamacare, in a perverse and punitive twist on its declared objective of insurance for all,” Gordon said, “requires that health insurers market their products through the health insurance exchanges, with the result that undocumented immigrants cannot even buy insurance, at full cost, on the private market.”
Ironically, the same housing market the immigrants helped rejuvenate 20 years earlier is now working against them.
“As housing values rise, there is anxiety about where local young people will live,” Gordon said. “There seems to be more competition between the immigrants and the native-born for housing than for jobs.”
In 2011, Greenport revised its code to to clamp down on multi-family occupancy, followed by a tougher rent regulation ordinance in 2013. With a growing resistance to higher-density developments, exclusionary zoning amendments now pose a threat to the village’s affordable housing stock. “If this situation continues, the immigrants will be pushed to communities farther west and will have longer commutes,” Gordon said, “and fewer opportunities to contribute anything other than their labor, which will be costlier, to Greenport.”
A Model for Other Small Towns?
Where Mitchell’s Restaurant once stood, there is now a city park. The amenity, Gordon said, is emblematic of both the village’s commitment to infrastructural investments and the significance of the influx of Latino immigrants – both of which took place in the 1990s, and both of which paved the way for Greenport to emerge from its half century spiral into economic decline.
Home to Shakespearean plays each summer, Greenport’s downtown area hosts one of Suffolk County’s largest Virgin of Guadalupe celebrations each Dec. 12, while the village’s annual Festival of Esquipulas draws Guatemalans from all over Long Island every Jan. 15.
It’s nothing new for Greenport, Kapell stated, citing the village’s long history – and celebration – of demographic change and diversity.
“The village has a history of immigration that has been handed down to long-time residents,” Gordon said, “an institutional memory of what it was like to be a non-English-speaking bricklayer or farmer in the late 19th or 20th century.”
Gordon is quick to note that Greenport’s success may not be replicated as easily or effectively elsewhere. However, while each community has elements that enhance or prohibit the upward mobility of immigrants, Gordon said there are certain aspects of her village that will yield positive results for any small town with an emerging minority population.
“One is the responsiveness of what sociologists call ‘street-level bureaucrats’ in dealing with immigrants — teachers, doctors, police officers,” she said. “Greenport’s immigrant children have a better chance of real integration — social and economic mobility that matches that of their American classmates — as they mature because they have been treated well in daily interactions with those people.”
Whether in coastal New England, the heartland or the remnants of the Rust Belt, Gordon said immigration unquestionably plays a pivotal role in reviving the American small town. Employers, landlords and homeowners alike, she said, are in dire need of the secondary labor market workforce, essential not only to the success of America’s villages, hamlets and burghs, but in the face of rapid depopulation, essential to their mere functioning.
As Greenport – like many rural and suburban communities – slowly inches towards a minority-majority population, however, questions linger as to whether the Latino community and the largely affluent north fork Caucasian base will ever truly integrate.
“Even in such a tiny community, acceptance of such a different demographic future requires a congeries of forces – private and public vision, the fiscal capacity to implement the vision, human commitment to change and a large dose of luck,” Gordon said. “The combination is a daunting challenge.”