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I am writing to you from Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, a place you may associate with images of traffic jams on the famed Long Island expressway, the rich and famous of the Hamptons, sandy beaches, and most recently, MS 13. Right now we live in the heart of the beast—the flashpoint of immigration and deportation politics in America’s suburbs.
Long Island has been part of the Latino migration stream of seasonal farm workers from the 40s through the 60s. Some workers were documented using the H-2A visa program available for agricultural workers, but many were not. During the months migrant workers were here, they lived primarily in isolated labor camps. Since the 60s, immigrant worker numbers have grown, seeking work now in suburban rather than rural communities, in service industries like food service, landscape care, nanny and elder services and the building trades. These workers mow our lawns, cook our food, care for our children, and build our buildings, still documented and undocumented.
Long Island also has a long history of segregation, born of the development of the “exclusive”” white suburbs in the post war era. Segregation by race and ethnicity is not new and persists to this day. By the 80s, the immigrant profile shifted from European to Latin Americans, many single men, mostly from Mexico, came in greater numbers. As more Latinos sought permanent residency, increased ethnic anxiety rose. Ideas about Latinos as gang members and welfare recipients began building steadily. The popular culture emphasis on drug and gang behavior (think “Miami Vice”) contributed to the narrative of the violent Latino and Latinas on welfare. The bi-lingual movement of the 1980s also created tension, and by 1996 Suffolk County attempted to have English designated as the official language of the county, the first in New York State. Covered in the New York Times,the article was titled “English Only Bill ignites Debates and Fear on LI.” Local zoning laws calling for the definition of family as five or less unrelated individuals also came in response to large numbers of workers renting single family homes.
In 2007, the town of Southampton attempted to set up a day laborer work site, a proposal that was defeated. (Though day labor hiring is illegal, it is an accepted practice to meet the need for local cheap labor. Many day laborers are not paid in full or at all and have little recourse save for the advocacy groups on Long Island.) The documentary film “Farmingville” (2004) about day laborers in Suffolk County, and the purposeful anti-immigrant Lucero murder in Patchogue (2008) brought increased national attention to Suffolk County.
As political civil war and instability along with the negative impacts of NAFTA on Central America occurred, immigrants began coming from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
With the influx of Central Americans, many of whom are unaccompanied minors and adolescents, the negative consequences of gangs, drug activity, and violence from MS 13 are glaringly real. While attempts are made to place children with family members already here, objections to this kind of “chain migration” is another source of contention.
A Federal approach and intervention was demanded to deal with increased crime on Long Island. President Trump’s visit to Long Island in 2016, where he vowed to wipe out MS13 using the weight of the federal government and federal law enforcement, produced massive protests both pro and anti-immigration. President Trump, through executive order, has made several changes in law enforcement and immigration practice that is significantly shifting the immigration/deportation landscape. The grounds for asylum seekers—sexual assault, fear of gang behavior, poverty, domestic violence—are no longer accepted. The termination of DACA, and attempts to end temporary protected status for those whose countries suffered disasters are also policies in play. Equally profound and alarming is the eroding of due process. A wider berth has been given to ICE enforcers. The definition of “a risk to public safety” that used to be decided by judges,
is now the purview of ICE. Before this change, judges had to make rulings and issues warrants. Individuals who have been charged, but not convicted, as well as resolved cases, green card holders and permanent resident holders can be re-opened for re-examination and deportation. Since local law enforcement officials are sometimes housed in courts, hospitals and educational institutions, and though they claim not to assist ICE, these “systems” become pipelines for ICE enforcers who often wait outside public facilities as immigrants attend court dates, some toward legalizing their status.
The result of these policies have had profound effects on the Latino communities in Suffolk County. Parents have been more reluctant to participate in community activities, while a decline in people applying for recertification is another. Distrust of local police and authorities have eroded people’s ability to seek help for themselves as MS 13 attacks them as well. My own adult college students at a SUNY college were often reluctant to come to appointments because of our location in a state facility. The stress and fear factors have exacerbated mental health issues in the Latino community who already have poor access to, and are reluctant to seek treatment.
These policies have also had negative effects on farms and businesses in Suffolk. While elected officials and law enforcement often denounce what they describe as a broken immigration system, they also identify the need to create a more efficient guest worker program for East End farms. Anti-immigrant legislation and sentiment hurts the economy, but also divides the community, creates intolerance and defames the reputation of particular towns.
Both federal and local policy changes have been developed under the theory of “deterrence logic”. The U.S. currently refuses to be a refuge for people with problems in their countries of origin. AmerIcans are often unaware of the tumult in Central America, that people quite literally are running for their lives as their own countries are filled with corrupt governments, domestic violence, gang violence, MS 13, and sex and drug trafficking. However, the arduous trip to cross into the U.S. is STILL preferable to remaining where they are. While fewer people may be attempting to cross, terrorizing these immigrants, many of whom are here legally, calls into question the acclaimed American narrative of a “nation of immigrants.” This narrative has been replaced by an “immigrant emergency” narrative which gained traction in the aftermath of 9/11. We are not a melting pot, but rather a pressure cooker here in Suffolk County, New York.
Barbara Kantz, Ph.D., M.S.W., is a retired college professor who taught Latin American History and Human Services at SUNY.