As 100 people settled in their seats in a stuffy Wyandanch auditorium, politicians checked to see if their hair was camera ready, activists scrawled in the margins of prepared remarks, television news crews snapped tripods into place, print photographers maneuvered for the better lines of sight, reporters clicked pens and flipped open notebooks. Everyone was good to go. And as the crowd quieted this August day, the buzz of anticipation continued to build for the first of two dozen speakers.
No, this was not another late summer scream fest over health care reform, the issue that drew large crowds and coverage to the consternation of so many in Congress. This was not a protest over a proposed new incinerator or some other civic insult that can rouse even the most apathetic community to action. On this day, the media mélange had assembled for the first hearing of the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force, convened in the outcry after the murder in Patchogue of Ecuadorian Marcelo Lucero by teens out looking for Latinos to beat.
And with every passionate speaker, the softening light of sunset collided with the darker reality of racism on Long Island.
Many of the speakers, polished professional and curious passer-by alike, talked poignantly a “climate of fear” created by “anti-immigrant” politicians, as a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center also would assert. They spoke of immigrants assaulted and robbed as they strolled through their neighborhoods, victims not just of ethnic stereotyping but expediency: The thugs assume the workers are carrying cash (“walking ATM cards,” as activist Luis Valenzuela put it) because they’re paid “off the books,” or so the stereotype goes. And the victims are reluctant to report a crime against themselves or someone they know because, undocumented or not, they fear that the police won’t believe them or, worse, will report them to immigration authorities.
“We are hard-working people, working to build the economy,” exclaimed a frustrated Enrique Licea, who described himself as “illegal for seven years but legal the next 20.” “Nobody complains when we paint their houses, mow their lawns or take care of their mothers in a nursing home. And we’re not all undocumented. We’re also doctors and lawyers, but the media doesn’t focus on them, only arrests, gangs, not the good things.”
Licea is correct, of course. As a journalist for more than three decades, I can tell you it’s rare to see so many reporters, especially from the network affiliates, in a community that often can’t get attention, much less aid, for its social and economic problems. It’s just as rare to see so many politicians, especially white ones. But as helpful as their spotlight may be in publicizing the plight of these vulnerable people, the focus on low wage workers, or gang bangers for that matter, distorts the fuller picture of what immigrants— all immigrants—experience on Long Island.
And what they contribute: Despite the stereotypes, research suggests that even undocumented workers put more into the local economy and government coffers than they take out in public services – through dollars spent on food and other purchases and through the sales and property taxes they pay as consumers, renters and owners.
The plight of these victimized visitors is a small part of the bigger immigrant story. A study by the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), based in Albany, showed that low wage day laborers comprise a fractional part of the growing Latino community, which itself is only the foam on a wave of increasingly affluent newcomers. A broad spectrum of immigrants—including those from India, Korea, China, Haiti, Africa, Iran and many other lands—are transforming America’s oldest major suburb. And it’s not accurate to say they are making merely a positive impact throughout Nassau and Suffolk. They have become the key to our region’s social and economic survival.
Immigrants are not only the new employees and customers, but also entrepreneurs and investors; and while not always without the controversy that comes with gentrification and other manifestations of change, they are reviving neighborhoods and business districts by buying homes and stores that once were owned, and sometimes abandoned, by aging whites and impoverished blacks.
“It is sometimes a bumpy road, but the downstate suburbs are gradually becoming more diverse and global,” the FPI found. “In 2005 about 30 percent of residents of the downstate suburbs were Hispanic, Asian or black. As recently as 1980, that figure was just 10 percent.” In 2030 it will be 50 percent.
The Adelphi study declared: “Immigrant[s] added $10.6 billion to total Long Island output and generated an estimated 82,000 jobs in 2006 as a result of their consumer spending… Immigrants are an economically productive force on Long Island.” The data is clear; diversity may be Long Island’s greatest asset.
Like the Italians, Irish and Jews, such as my parents, who led the first wave of suburbanization on Long Island after World War II, the latest newcomers say they are arriving for better schools, more open space and opportunity – especially as older whites die off or retire to the Sunbelt and, as a recent Long Island Association study showed, younger ones don’t return after graduating college or leaving for less expensive or more exciting neighborhoods. But the newcomers bring more than their dreams and a down payment.
Unlike the ethnic pioneers who transformed a mostly Protestant farming and fishing region into the nation’s fastest growing post-World War II suburb, the more recent foreign-born arrivals generally don’t spend a generation or two in a city living with people from their own homeland. Either they are moving with their children directly to the suburbs or spending less time in the cities before they do. They don’t need the comfort and security of living in an ethnic ghetto because, by and large, they speak adequate or better English, are well educated, experienced in business and often have nest-eggs from careers where they lived overseas.
The FPI study showed that day laborers account for less than one percent of all foreign born. The top occupation of foreign born workers is nurse. In fact 29 percent of highly trained registered nurses, 41 percent of physicians and surgeons and 22 percent of accountants are foreign born.”
Important to Long Island’s success in the global economy, the new arrivals are hardly eager to cut their ties to the homeland, as their predecessors did in fleeing from oppression and poverty generations ago. There are many examples of immigrants now using their ties overseas to create businesses that succeed on two continents. For example, Tai Wang’s parents fled China for Taiwan after the Communists took over. She and her husband left Taiwan for America as well-educated professionals who wanted to build a business in a country, she says, that was more accommodating to entrepreneurs. Now, she and her husband, who moved up from a middleclass Queens neighborhood to a Gold Coast waterfront mansion, are a well-known maker of lighting fixtures. They employ 160 people on Long Island and 600 in China.
And now, her own daughter Shelley, has returned to Long Island to be groomed to run this global family business. This is more than a nice family story: Shelley and immigrant children like her are crucial to replacing the whites in her age group who are leaving Long Island in droves.
“If you are willing to work hard, the door to success is open here,” said Wang, who organized the Asian American Festival of Long Island, which last spring drew several thousand people to the Farmingdale College campus. “I wanted my children to know what it meant to be Chinese and American,” she said. “And I wanted to present our culture to Americans so they can learn more about us.”
Many immigrant groups are setting up cultural schools to supplement public school educations, as the diversity is religious as well as ethnic and racial. While the majority of new arrivals are Catholic Latinos, nearly 70,000 Muslims—as diverse a group as there is on Long Island—are found throughout the region with the 21 mosques and two schools. Nassau and Suffolk are home to at least as many Hindus and Sikhs, mostly from India. Korean Christian churches are ubiquitous.
Change has even come to Levittown. The iconic “first suburb,” which was notorious for the deed restrictions that barred non-whites for years after it grew out of central Nassau potato fields, is experiencing a small but significant surge in Latino and especially East and South Asian homebuyers.
A month before the hate crimes hearing, the only cameras at Jessica Kaur Taneja and Maneep Singh Karla’s engagement party at Akbar’s in Garden City – attended by 450 people, including Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and other influential political and business leaders — were those provided by the parents of a young Indian couple. Jessica, who wore a traditional duppata, a long, colorful scarf, is a lawyer-lobbyist in tailored suits. Mandeep (known widely as Bobby) is an analyst at J.P Morgan on Wall Street.
“I am very Indian—I love Indian movies and clothing—and I’m very American,” said Jessica. “When we moved to East Meadow I was only the second Indian and the first Sikh in the school. Now there are dozens of Indians yet my friends are a mix of many cultures. We like it that way.”
Jessica’s father, Mohinder Taneja Singh, is a leader in the Sikh community and his hiring by Suozzi for “community outreach” is itself a reflection of the growing influence of Sikhs and other Indians. The increasing clout also is reflected in Suozzi, Steve Levy and other politicians setting up advisory committees representing not just Indians but a range of ethnic and religious groups. Then there’s Harry Anand, an Indian, elected mayor in the nearly all-white enclave of Laurel Hollow—a milestone noted on the front page of the New York Times.
Just as Great Neck has become a Mecca for Iranian Jews and Brentwood and Elmont for Latinos, Hicksville has become a center of Indian commerce and culture. Less than a year ago, the Indus American bank opened a branch there. Store after store in downtown Hicksville is owned by Indians, many featuring either features Indian clothing, food and other products that an Indian could only find on Long Island with great difficulty. “I only imagined that one day I could walk down a street like this,” said Apindergit Toor, as she shopped for padda, a sweet milk confection, and ladoo, a deep fried pastry ball and other Indian treats at the Bengali Sweet Shop in Hicksville. “You couldn’t even find the ingredients to make real Indian food. But now there is so much that it’s like we have a Little Punjab here!”
Two months before the hate crimes hearing, no reporters were there to scribble notes about the graduation day speech by the valedictorian of Oyster Bay High School, a teenaged girl who didn’t speak English fluently until she was eight years old. Ginny Lee, born to Korean parents, David and Mary Lee, is one of a half dozen Korean valedictorians on Long Island in recent years. David, a computer analyst and former fighter pilot in the South Korean Air Force, founded the Korean American Public Affairs Committee to help the tens of thousands of Koreans on Long Island increase their influence with local and state officials.
“The beauty of America is that if you work hard and show respect, people will help you and your children,” said David. “The school asked us to come in to tell them about our culture so they could do a better job. We are very happy on Long Island.”
And while some school districts have experienced “changing” pains in adjusting to non-English speakers, even in districts with substantial resources, today’s newcomers tend to adapt quickly to their new cultures. Herricks, for instance, has undergone a radical transformation. Heavily white even into the 90s, this high-achieving district in west-central Nassau is now believed to be the only majority Asian school district in any American suburb.
The exception to the success rule seems to be the children of the relatively few poor immigrants who, like their parents, aren’t literate even in their native tongue and who attend schools in districts ill-equipped financially to give them as much help as they need. These schools have been called the shame of the suburbs, islands of want in a sea of wealth—Hempstead, Roosevelt, Wyandanch and about a dozen others—that defy the educational excellence that defines Long Island. As social policy, I see this as morally offensive. As economic policy, it is simply stupid: Giving the worst education to kids who need it most, and who are most likely to remain on Long Island beyond their youth, can only weaken the quality of the work force and thus the region’s competitiveness.
Overall, however, the children of newcomers are doing well, rising to the tops of their classes in some of the nation’s finest public schools, including Half Hollow Hills, Syosset, Great Neck and Jericho. And as Rockville Centre schools proved, the poorer Latino and black students can keep pace with their more affluent white classmates if the district raised expectations, redirected some resources so high and low achievers sat in the same classrooms.
Many immigrants are arriving or have worked for a generation to be the new entrepreneurs and ambitious employees whose ideas, energy and skills are reinvigorating neighborhoods like Hicksville, Bay Shore, Glen Cove and Brentwood, the largest concentration of Latinos in the state outside New York City. Some are building huge enterprises. Two decades ago, Charles Wang, who came to the U.S. with a few bucks in his pocket, created thousands of jobs on Long Island when he grew Computer Associates into a commercial software giant. Bobby Kumar, who came over from India as a shoeshine boy with nothing, is a State University of New York trustee and successful businessman. He rose to be the first minority to chair a national political organization, the Reform Party (known in New York State as the Independence Party). And there is William Yeh of Mill Neck, who parlayed his brilliance in math to become one of Wall Street’s biggest and most innovative traders.
“The suburbs aren’t being transformed by immigrants—they are transformed,” said Kumar. “Go to any hospital—the doctors, nurses, maybe even the chair of the board are foreign born.”
Like I was raised a generation ago, as an American and a Jew. And like my friend Terry, American and Irish and Italian. And if the children of the Kumars, Lees, Yehs, Prieto-Rosales’ and other newly loyal and productive families don’t stay and save Long Island—save it from a “brain drain” of young workers, an aging of population and lack of new investment—then who will?