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Long IslandTowns

Immigrant tensions in Hampton Bays follow changing demographics

Rudy Fabian from Hampton Bays, owner of Mundo

Rudy Fabian from Hampton Bays, owner of Mundo Tech on Main Street in Hampton Bays, on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. Credit: Randee Daddona

When Ku Klux Klan recruitment pamphlets appeared in Hampton Bays this summer, they landed in one of the most ethnically diverse corners of the Hamptons, in a hamlet where immigrants from Central and South America have transformed schools, shops and residential streets over the past decade.

The influx of newcomers -- from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and other countries -- who usually work in the service industry has resulted in tensions with some longtime residents of what has traditionally been a mostly white enclave for the working class in the Hamptons.

Hampton Bays' Hispanic and Latino population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 -- to 3,900 from 1,500 -- according to the U.S. Census. During the same period, the white population has shrunk by more than 10 percent. A community that was 85 percent white in 2000 is now almost one-third Hispanic and Latino.

The surge mirrors a trend across Long Island, where the Hispanic and Latino population has swelled 56 percent since 2000 while the white population has inched downward.

In Hampton Bays, the demographic change has rankled some residents who have complained in town meetings about overcrowded houses and classrooms.

Sister Mary Beth Moore, a Catholic nun who works with Centro Corazon de Maria, a Hampton Bays organization that helps immigrants, said the concerns over housing are legitimate. The poverty that drove the newcomers from their native countries often follows them, pushing them into the most affordable housing they can find. And Hampton Bays is more affordable than communities such as Southampton Village or Bridgehampton.

"It's a challenge of compassion," Moore said. "It's welcoming the stranger . . . A lot of people rise to the challenge, but all of us struggle with that."

Drawn by prospect of work

Many of the immigrants who have settled in Hampton Bays came to the United States to reunite with family members. They often take service industry jobs -- housekeeping, landscaping, restaurant staff -- that keep the Hamptons humming.

School enrollment in Hampton Bays has risen roughly 1½ to 2 percent a year for the past 10 years to more than 2,000 students, school officials said. In the district's three earliest grade levels, 55 to 60 percent of students are now Hispanic and Latino.

Many new immigrants are drawn to the area by the prospect of work in the Hamptons.

But on Hampton Bays' Main Street, Latino-owned restaurants, cafes and shops with Spanish-language signs indicate that a slightly older generation of immigrants has entered the economic mainstream.

"They're growing up. They want to open their own businesses," said Rudy Fabian, 34, a Costa Rica native who opened a computer and cellphone repair shop, Mundotech Inc., four years ago. "If you look at this block, there are three new businesses opening. They're all Latinos."

Some Hampton Bays residents, while not citing ethnicity or immigration status, have joined an intensifying push in recent years for Southampton Town to close houses and motels illegally divided into apartments, which serve as the only housing within financial reach of many recent immigrants.

Hampton Bays residents have denounced the KKK pamphleting, which occurred sporadically on several blocks in late July and again in August. They said any anger in their community is directed at unscrupulous landlords and the town, not the immigrants.

"I think the No. 1 issue in Hampton Bays is overcrowding," said Michael Dunn, a founder of the community group Concerned Citizens of Hampton Bays. "I'll welcome any family here as my neighbors, but it's not fair if there's two, three or four families living in a home to the detriment of other people."

Neighbors In Support of Immigrants, another Hampton Bays organization, has criticized the town for early morning code-enforcement raids that members said frightened children in immigrant households.

Sylvia Baruch said she formed the group in 2009 in response to newspaper stories about animosity toward immigrants in the hamlet.

"I was aware of many people who felt compassion and concern and neighborly towards immigrants," Baruch said. "I wanted to promote a different reality."

Residents speak out

Hampton Bays residents have said they didn't know why someone dropped the poorly reproduced KKK materials, which advertise the Loyal White Knights branch of North Carolina, in their driveways in July, but some recipients said they felt compelled to speak out.

"I felt very strongly we needed to do something," said E.J. Lopez, 53, who found a pamphlet in his driveway in a plastic bag with three pieces of Starburst candy. "Like, who are these people? Are these my neighbors? Who lives here? We're concerned because, number one, we're a gay married couple. My husband is Hispanic."

Southampton Police Sgt. Todd Bennett said police have received four complaints from residents who have received the materials. The department notified the Suffolk County Police Department hate crimes unit and will continue to document the incidents, Bennett said, noting that distributing the materials is not a crime.

Tammy Sarasky, a teaching assistant in the Southampton School District who moved to Hampton Bays 22 years ago after emigrating from Costa Rica when she was 21, said she wonders whether the pamphleting could escalate.

"I worry if they're going to become aggressive, because they hate many different groups, not only Latinos," she said. "But if they're only doing that because it's their opinion, they're entitled to their opinion."

Robert Jones, grand dragon of the Loyal White Knights, said in an interview that he was unaware of a recruitment effort in Hampton Bays, but a chapter, or "klavern," of at least 15 members existed there -- a claim some town officials and residents said is probably untrue.

Jones said the KKK has been winning recruits nationwide, including New York State, from growing anger over immigration.

Sarasky described what she called "sweet and sour" early days in Hampton Bays, with her struggles learning the language and culture, and an incident when someone spit on the floor in a supermarket after overhearing her speaking Spanish.

"There are a lot of people, don't get me wrong, that welcome you and make you feel at home," she said. "But there's the other side of the story, that people don't want you here."

'This is a beautiful place'

Immigrants said Hampton Bays has attracted people through word-of-mouth from villages such as San Jerónimo Coyula in Puebla, Mexico.

Joel, 29, who didn't want to give his last name, said he arrived in Hampton Bays from El Salvador about two weeks ago after a monthslong journey where he clung to the roof of a moving train, walked for two weeks in the desert and crossed the Rio Grande in an inner tube. He said he sold his house in El Cocalito for the $7,000 he needed to pay a smuggler to guide him into the United States.

Through an interpreter, Joel said he hopes to find work on a fishing boat. He has never been to school and made the trip to reunite with his wife, who has lived in Hampton Bays for three years and is a housekeeper. They live in a house with three other couples.

"This is a beautiful place," he said. "I'm here to work for my family."

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