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Jun 16, 2015 3:42 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Report Shows A Key Role For Immigrants In The Economy

Maria Bartelme behind the counter at her dad's store, Wainscott Hardware ALISHA STEINDECKER
Jun 16, 2015 4:15 PM

Off the top of her head, entrepreneur and advocate Isabel Sepulveda-de Scanlon can name 15 Latino-owned businesses in Hampton Bays, eight in Southampton, three in Water Mill, and five in Bridgehampton.

It’s a telling sign of the increasing role that immigrants play in the local economy. In both Southampton and East Hampton towns, immigrants from all over the world make up at least 19 percent of the total population—and a sizable part of the local economy.

“We definitely hold our own weight, if not more,” said Gelmer M. Mendez, who came to the United States from Guatemala when he was just 17 years old. Now, 22 years later, he says he is a proud and grateful U.S. citizen who owns three businesses in the Hamptons: the Melrose Deli and La Pradera Restaurant, both in Hampton Bays, and another restaurant, Melrose East in Southampton.

Mr. Mendez’s story is a case in point, illustrating the statistics highlighted in a report released on June 2 by the Fiscal Policy Institute. Titled “New Americans on Long Island: A Vital Fifth of the Economy,” the report, by the institute’s Immigration Research Initiative, says that immigrants do, in fact, contribute 20 percent of Long Island’s total economic output, and 17 percent of Suffolk County’s economic output.

In Suffolk County, it says, 46 percent of immigrants are from Central America, followed by 18 percent from South America, 12 percent from Mexico, and 10 percent from Asia.

“People have often misunderstood the economic role of immigrants on Long Island,” said David Kallick, principal author of the Fiscal Policy Institute report. “We expected there would be a robust role of immigrants in the economy—and, even so, I was impressed by the strong findings on Long Island.”

It is important to note, Mr. Kallick said, that immigrants make up of 23 percent of the working-age population on Long Island, because they usually come to the United States as young adults expressly to work. This means that the total economic output of immigrants has grown proportionately to its working-age population.

“We are hard-working,” Mr. Mendez agreed, noting that he came to the United States to work. “I jumped the border,” he said, “I was illegal and spent 90 days in jail to pay the $500 fine.” He told the judge that he did not want to go back to Guatemala, because he needed to earn money for his family there, who had nothing.

After three months in jail, Mr. Mendez said the judge let him start his life in America—he was able to get to Los Angeles and was hired to work in a restaurant kitchen. “He gave me an opportunity,” he said.

“I love this kind of business, because they made me legal and a resident,” Mr. Mendez said, referring to the employer who helped him get his Green Card. After five years, he applied for and was granted U.S. citizenship. He admits that now it is not so easy for an unauthorized immigrant to get a Green Card, however.

Mr. Mendez said he would love to see the government make immigrants—those who are hard-working and have been here for a long time—legal. “I believe we all support the economy,” he said, although he added, “People who do bad things? Send them back.”

Herb Luengas, whose family, originally from Colombia, has owned the Continental Market in Montauk for more than 30 years, said it was unfortunate when illegal immigrants are a large part of the community but have little say in it.

The statistics in the report paint a different and significantly worse picture for immigrants in the Hamptons than for those on the rest of Long Island, in part because of geography.

The median household income for immigrants in Southampton Town is $61,000, compared to a median of $98,000 for Suffolk County as a whole, according to Mr. Kallick, who could not provide a similar figure for East Hampton Town.

Immigrants usually do not get paid as much as U.S. workers. However, in one household there are often more immigrants at prime working age who are employed, which makes median household income higher than one might expect. This holds true for the entire island.

Sandra Dunn, the program director at the Hagedorn Foundation, which gave FPI the grant to perform the study and write the report, cites various reasons for the lower income in the Hamptons.

“The farther west you go on the island, the longer the immigrant population has been here in general, and the further east you go, the shorter time they’ve been here and the shorter time they’ve established themselves in the community,” she said.

Another reason for the lower median income in the Hamptons is that there are not as many opportunities for higher-paying jobs as there are to the west. “We don’t have the large industries to support lots of engineers flocking to Southampton,” said Ms. Dunn, a resident of Hampton Bays.

What is clear, though, is that immigrants are coming to the Hamptons for the opportunity to work, and that many will open their own small businesses, as Mr. Mendez and Mr. Luengas did. Of all business owners in Suffolk County, 18 percent are immigrants.

Mr. Mendez said that 95 percent of the customers in his Hampton Bays Mexican restaurant, La Pradera, are American. In contrast, Mr. Luengas’s Continental Market in Montauk is successful because of the Latino customers who patronize it. “It caters to Latin people—there is a big Ecuadorian community here,” he said. “The market serves Latin food, like back home. They like it.”

Mr. Luengas said that 95 percent of the people who come into his market are Latino, many of them immigrant workers themselves. Without them, he said, his business might not survive.

Although immigrants are not as well off in the Hamptons as on the rest of Long Island, they have still established themselves here. There are many Chinese, Japanese, and Indian restaurants that dot the East End, and in fact 42 percent of restaurant owners on Long Island are immigrants. Of the nail salons on Long Island, 80 percent are owned by immigrants.

“The report does show that immigrants are a large share of business owners across the island, and that holds true here,” Ms. Dunn said. “All of them are playing a vital role in making the East End what it is.”

Wainscott Hardware, owned by Juan Carlos Diaz, opened in 2012, when Mr. Diaz, a contractor who came from Chile in 1991, realized that the Wainscott community was missing something. The business has since catered to the needs of contractors, independent homeowners and seasonal residents, said Maria Bartelme, Mr. Diaz’s daughter.

According to Ms. Sepulveda-de Scanlon, who is also founder of OLA of Eastern Long Island—a nonprofit advocacy and educational organization that supports the development of the Latino community socially, economically and culturally— the summer economy is likely to bear some of the blame for median income being lower here than in western Long Island.

“After September, many rich people close their houses, and they are the ones who hired the cleaning companies and many of the service jobs,” Ms. Sepulveda-de Scanlon said. Winter does not offer enough work opportunities, which forces workers in the service industry to make their money from the summer season last through the rest of the year.

Although Ms. Sepulveda-de Scanlon says a lot of positive change has occurred since she moved to Southampton in 1991—she can also be credited with starting a bilingual newspaper, Voz Latina, and opening her own store, Isa Consignment—she suggests that the Hamptons still has a long way to go, beyond just acceptance of the immigrant-owned bakeries, delis, fuel oil companies and beauty salons. She mentioned such issues as workers’ rights, civic education, and overall integration into the local community.

This focus on immigrant business owners inspired by the FPI report is not meant to minimize the fact that many unauthorized immigrants usually are employed in low-wage jobs and that, in general, immigrant workers make less than U.S.-born workers. “We are like 10 years behind Brentwood, and Brentwood is like 10 years behind the city,” Ms. Sepulveda-de Scanlon said of relative wages and overall integration into the community.

Mr. Kallick mentioned that the Fiscal Policy Institute’s report really brings to light the idea that immigration, and the complex issues associated with it, are not going away anytime soon. The report provides the public with statistics that are often not known and encourages a more sensible debate about immigration, he said.

“These people,” Mr. Mendez said, “are the future of this country.”

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This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By GregBall (19), Costa Mesa, California on Jun 20, 15 5:40 AM
we know it was going on but now they are going to brag?
By llimretaw (118), watermill on Jun 20, 15 6:57 PM
1 member liked this comment
Interesting piece of propaganda. What the report actually says is that most of those contributions were made by legal immigrants with professional degrees and mostly in Nassau. This shamful article would have you believe the illegals who jumped the boarder were the ones making the contribution when all responsible economic evidence shows they cost they lower the quality of life for the average american worker.
By bird (824), Southampton on Jun 20, 15 11:34 PM
2 members liked this comment
Not to take away from the success and contributions of legal immigrants, but it is important that we discuss not only the percentage of economic contributions, but also the economic costs that are related to illegal immigrants.
By Lets go mets (377), Southampton on Jun 21, 15 6:39 AM
2 members liked this comment
WHY would you take down my comment? FREEDOM OF SPEECH FREEDOM OF PRESS
By GregBall (19), Costa Mesa, California on Jun 22, 15 5:35 AM
Why is the truth INAPPROPRIATE?
By GregBall (19), Costa Mesa, California on Jun 22, 15 5:37 AM
Perhaps it is not your "truth" which was inappropriate, but your presentation as a matter of decorum.
By Mr. Z (11659), North Sea on Jun 22, 15 7:03 AM
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