Recent U.S. Census data reflecting a swelling Hispanic population in Hampton Bays — it's risen 154 percent in the last decade — has galvanized residents on both sides of a contentious issue that has sharply divided a community, and a nation.
After an initial , tempers flared as residents posted a flurry of heated comments on illegal immigration, which they say has led to overcrowded homes, loss of jobs for locals and a strain on schools and hospitals.
In recent years, as numbers of day laborers standing in front of area 7-Elevens and the Hampton Bays movie theater have surged, detractors have engaged in demonstrations to express their ire.
At the same time, a proposal for a hiring site for day laborers in Southampton Village on a parcel of land on Aldrich Lane purchased by the town with Community Preservation Funds ignited months of furious controversy; the plan was nixed and now talks for a potential farm on the parcel have commenced.
But as numbers continue to rise, residents say they’ve had enough.
Hampton Bays resident Robert Nelson, who does tile work, decided to stop talking and start organizing. He said he's planning a large-scale demonstration soon.
“We’ve all been sitting around 7-Eleven in the morning, drinking coffee, and we see them all over the place," Nelson said. "We have to get everyone together. If we have 50 friends, and they have 50 friends and we all get together, we can probably do something about it. There’s strength in numbers.”
He said he is fed up with illegal immigrants straining resources meant for legal residents.
“It’s not good at all. They’re not spending money here. They’re sending money back home — that money is not being re-circulated in our country.”
A bad situation is exacerbated by landlords who cram illegal residents into overcrowded homes, he said.
“There are 15 cars parked outside. They don’t care,” Nelson said, adding that some days he sees laborers urinating in public.
Nelson, who used to live in Arizona, recalls immigrants caught crossing the border illegally, waiting on the road for border control, their hands “zip tied behind their backs.” He feels a similar practice should be instituted locally, but said it’s unlikely, because authorities do not want to be accused of profiling.
Moving forward with his protest, Nelson said the plan is to get permits in place and embark on the demonstration legally.
Isabel Sepulveda, the co-founder and president of Organización Latino Americana of Eastern Long Island, pointed out that the primary reason for gathering Census data is to discern how many individuals live in an area with an eye toward dissemination of federal funding for services such as police, roads, hospitals and other areas.
“The places that have greater populations get more money,” she said.
The new wave of immigrants, Sepulveda said, has brought a resurgence of new business to communities such as Hampton Bays.
“I know a Latino woman who owns many of those buildings,” she said. “Not just the businesses, but the buildings.”
New business owners constitute a vibrant landscape of salons, insurance companies, delis, boutiques and restaurants both in Hampton Bays and all of Southampton Town, Sepulveda said.
Those businesses provide needed services, she added.
“They are bringing money into the community,” Sepulveda said. “People have to pay rent, taxes, and hire employees. That’s money that’s being left in town. I see it as very positive. Can you imagine closing all those stores? Without them it would be a ghost town. Is that what you want?”
Detractors, she added, “are very close-minded. And you can’t argue with them because they will never see it.”
Southampton resident Elaine Kahl, founder of the Suffolk County Coalition for Legal Immigration/No Amnesty and Citizens Forum, has spoken before the county Legislature with recommendations to cool tensions.
“There are some people who should be here, and people who shouldn’t," Kahl said. "We’re not against immigrants. We need sustainable immigration on the East End. But one issue we should all agree on is the law is to be followed equally, by everyone — to no one’s exclusion. That’s where we run into a problem.”
Kahl, an advocate for legal immigration, said laws should be upheld by all.
“We are not supportive of amnesty, because there has to be accountability,” she said.
"There are human beings involved in this equation, and we in the Suffolk County Coalition are very concerned about both sides to the issue. We do support the legal immigrant population, but we do not support overcrowded housing and schools and we don’t like the burden placed on taxpayers” to fund those in the country illegally, she said.
“We’re at the edge of the precipice here. We’re at the end of the road,” she said.
Especially troubling to Kahl is the proliferation of loitering day laborers, a key concern in Hampton Bays.
“Pandering is not allowed,” she said. “We certainly don’t have a community that is safe for everyone at the present time.”
On the other side of the issue, Hampton Bays resident Sylvia Baruch, the founder of Neighbors in Support of Immigrants, has worked to create healthy dialogue. In recent months, she has shown a documentary chronicling the immigrant experience at libraries and schools to help raise awareness.
“This new wave of immigration, like all immigration in the past, brings their vitality to the community,” she said. “The fact that they had to leave their homes to be here, the fact that they love this country and want to contribute to it and that they are focused on making a better life for their children,” are all reasons.
Tom Wedell, who has stood outside 7-Eleven in Southampton for years in protest, began his vigil when illegal day laborers threatened his livelihood.
“I’m just a regular guy,” said Wedell, a roofer and siding contractor from East Moriches, said. “I got wiped out. I used to have 25 guys working for me. People hiring illegals were undercutting my prices. I couldn’t make ends meet.”
Wedell is infuriated by illegal day laborers who he claims flaunt welfare cards that they have received after having children in this country.
“They shove them in my face and say, ‘Ha! I’m being taken care of by our government,’’ he said.
Wedell said illegal immigrants are working during a time legal laborers are struggling for sustenance.
"The only way our country is going to function is if everyone plays by the rules,” he said.
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