Lessons learned about Long Island immigrants


Once upon a time, Long Island was known as one big, largely white suburb — but no more. There is no doubt that the face of Long Island is rapidly changing.

According to a 2015 report by the Fiscal Policy Institute, “New Americans on Long Island,” immigrants now comprise 18 percent of the population and 23 percent of the workforce, accounting for 20 percent of the Island’s total economic output.

In total, there are some 526,000 foreign-born Long Islanders out of roughly 2.8 million people living in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Latin Americans make up the largest portion of the Island’s immigrant population, at 41 percent, but people come from throughout the world, including Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

There is much talk about how Long Islanders are leaving for elsewhere because of the high cost of living. The Island, however, actually saw a net gain in population because of immigration. Suffolk’s population remained largely unchanged between 2000 and 2012, while Nassau’s increased by roughly 78,500 people, according to census data.

Immigrants have been arriving on Long Island for more than six decades, but the pace of immigration has accelerated within the last 10 years, with an average of 20,000 Long Island immigrants annually receiving citizenship.

Immigrants, it appears, are bypassing the big cities and settling in the suburbs. That’s a good thing for Long Island.

Over the past three months, the Herald has published a series of nine stories “to document the lives of the immigrants and people of color who are rapidly transforming Long Island’s demographics and reshaping its educational, political and economic landscapes.”

Some come because their companies relocated to Long Island, and when their assignments were done, they liked the area so much that they stayed. Many times, though, immigrants are escaping hardship: civil war, terrorism, the drug trade, poverty and lack of opportunity.

And when they arrive, more often than not, they give more than they get.

The median income of Long Island immigrant families is $97,000 a year, compared to $119,000 for other Island families, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.

More than half of Long Island immigrants work in so-called white-collar jobs, FPI says, while the other half work in the service industry and in farming.

Clearly, immigrants play a vital part in Long Island’s economy because the majority of them are “concentrated in the prime working age” (25 to 54 years old).

And, according to the FPI, “Like U.S.-born residents, immigrants pay a lot in property taxes.” Seventy-three percent of Long Island immigrants live in owner-occupied homes, and 40 percent of them pay more than $10,000 a year in property taxes to support local schools and services.

The FPI could not say precisely how much unauthorized immigrants pay in taxes, but the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that they pay upward of $1 billion in state and local taxes in New York.

Planning for “The Changing Face of Long Island” series began more than two years ago, long before the recent back-and-forth about immigration policy.

What we found were amazing stories of resiliency –– people whose lives were upended by disasters, natural and human, but came seeking a better life –– and peace. Immigrants, we learned, only want what most of us desire –– to live out their lives productively, with little fanfare, while caring for their families and their communities.

They are largely good and decent human beings who work hard to succeed in an expensive place to live. They should be celebrated as an integral part of the American experience, much as our immigrant ancestors who infused so much life into New York City and helped build one of the greatest cities in the world.

Yes, Long Island is very much a center of immigration to the United States. We’d like to think that’s because Long Islanders are, for the most part, tolerant and accepting of others who are unlike them.

In recent weeks, we have seen a spate of hate graffiti scrawled at locations across Nassau County. We know that such hate crimes do not represent the majority of Long Islanders.

Let’s never forget that we are all immigrants to this land –– and without immigration to fuel Long Island’s economic engine, it would not be the hub of innovation and prosperity that it is today.

The Changing Face

of Long Island: the series

“What’s driving L.I. immigration,” by Scott Brinton

“The long and winding road to citizenship,” by Stephany Reyes

“A community is born—around a mosque,” by Micah Danney

“Immigrant entrepreneurs,” by Rossana Weitekamp

“Despite prejudice, Roosevelt perseveres,” by Alex Boyd

“This doctor’s dream took root in Haiti,” by Daine Taylor and Scott Brinton

“Learning to be comfortable in their own skin,” by Stephany Reyes

“The many blessings of citizenship,” by Laura Lane

“Living the American dream,” by Laura Schofer