A Hispanic population boom spanning two decades has added more than a quarter-million people to Long Island, bringing greater diversity and the growing pains of change.

Latino growth has spurred businesses, filled classrooms and underscored the need for affordable housing. The dramatic population shift has also fed a backlash against illegal immigration in recent years, and confronted public officials with a tough balancing act.

Local governments must accommodate growth while embracing the more international flavor of immigrant-based communities, said North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman.

"There's a level of diversity and integration that happens," he said. "On the other hand, there are challenges, such as language barriers" and fear of change for longtime residents.

"It's our job to try to ease that transition."

The Hispanic population has soared locally and nationally since the early 1990s, fueled by immigration and a higher-than-average birthrate.

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The 2010 census figures released last week counted 441,594 Hispanics on the Island -- a 56.2 percent jump over 2000. Hispanics now constitute 15.5 percent of the total population of 2.83 million.

Twenty years ago, no Long Island community had a Hispanic majority. Today, there are four: Brentwood, at 68.5 percent; North Bay Shore, 65 percent; New Cassel, 54 percent; and Central Islip, 52 percent.

One out of four Riverhead residents is Hispanic, because of a 255 percent explosion in that population in the last decade, the census found. Fifty-four other communities saw numbers of Hispanics more than double since 2000.

Experts say suburban regions like Long Island are now often the first stop for many newcomers, unlike decades ago. For some, better schools and less crime is the draw.

"When my parents came from Puerto Rico, they stopped off in New York City and worked in factories," said George Siberón, who heads the Hispanic Hempstead Civic Association. Hispanics now make up 44 percent of Hempstead's population, the census found.

"That pattern of migration is not happening anymore," he said. "More and more Latinos are landing on Long Island."

Challenges abound

Government leaders and community advocates have taken notice, pointing to the growing diversity as enriching but also challenging.

Islip Town Councilman Steven J. Flotteron said one of his biggest concerns is a rise in overcrowded, substandard housing that attracts lower-income immigrants. He called for a more coordinated effort to penalize slumlords while helping immigrants.

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Town of Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan said much of what the immigrants need from local government is the same as everyone else.

"Brentwood has changed demographically quite a bit, but our mission is still the same: to take care of the streets, take care of the parks, pick up the garbage -- and all people want those same services," he said.

While their numbers are substantial, the political involvement of local Hispanics is just beginning. Only a handful now hold political office.

"We are like an island within an island because in many ways we are still a self-contained community," said Luis Montes, chief of staff for Assemb. Philip Ramos (D-Brentwood), the only Hispanic state representative from Long Island.

Livio Rosario is serving his first term as a Hempstead Village trustee. "I wanted to be part of the changes; that's what made me get involved in politics and civic groups," he said.

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'A better life'

Those who advocate for immigrants see hope and hardship.

On a recent afternoon at Pronto, an outreach center in North Bay Shore, struggling immigrants waited in line for donated food and grants to help pay utility bills.

Hours later, the scene changed. Other Hispanics came after work to take English classes and study for the American citizenship test.

"We have found that when we give people hope and a plan of action, we can really make a difference," said Nina Fenton, Pronto's development director.

At least part of the growth in places like Brentwood comes from a controversial source: immigrants who enter the country illegally to find work.

For Edwin Vázquez, 26, who was among 27 day laborers standing at a Brentwood corner one recent morning, breaking the law was a desperate move to raise his two children.

"I had to work," the Salvadoran man said in Spanish. "Here, I can get all kinds of work -- construction, moving furniture, cutting grass."

While tensions over day laborers and illegal immigration persist, some advocates like Luis Valenzuela, of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, are hopeful that a new sentiment may emerge. He cites a recent resolution by the Suffolk County Legislature calling for "understanding, accepting and respecting our cultural differences" in remembrance of Marcelo Lucero. The Ecuadorean immigrant was attacked in Patchogue in 2008 by a mob of teenagers, one of whom fatally stabbed him. Some established Hispanic families, meanwhile, serve as role models. They've achieved success only dreamed of by newcomers.

Juan C. Ramos, 25, is a native Long Islander but his parents emigrated from Ecuador "to have a better life." Years ago, his mother opened Luisa's Magic Scissors, a Riverhead hair salon. The family now owns four beauty shops and a clothing store, he said.

The Sarmiento family -- here just 11 years -- is another success story. Fleeing guerrilla warfare in his native Colombia, Guido Sarmiento, 40, a civil engineer, won political asylum and arrived in Brentwood in 2000. His wife, Ginny Zabaleta, and daughters Luisa and Maria followed weeks later.

The couple worked 12-hour days at a payroll company. At night, they cleaned offices. They bought a home in Brentwood in 2006. Now they're saving for their daughters' college education.

"We do it all for our daughters," said Zabaleta, 39. "Here, they will be able to have a better future."With Stacey Altherr