Poor economy exacerbates persistent East End tension over immigration

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Mario Mendez, 19, arrived on the East End from Guatemala two months ago after weeks of traveling overland and crossing borders while hidden in cramped vans. He joined two brothers here and is staying in Flanders. Every morning he goes to North Sea Road in Southampton to wait, with the hope of getting work. He has not had one job.

Standing on the street last Friday with a loaf of bread in his hand he received from the Sisters of Mercy of Water Mill, he said he was barely getting by. The meal the nuns provide is often the only one he has each day. The meals used to be handed out at a makeshift soup kitchen that Carol and Albert Whitby quietly ran with the Sisters of Mercy at their business, Southampton Tire Center, until the village Building Department ordered it closed on April 1. That decision was later reversed on April 13.

“I thought that it was going to be better here,” Mr. Mendez said. “But it’s looking like no, it’s the same as it was in Guatemala,” where there was no work and scarce money. He said he was far from giving up, considering the treacherous overland journey he had made from Guatemala to Mexico, crossing the border from Mexico to Texas, and then riding from Houston directly to New York.

Mr. Mendez is one of the hundreds of illegal immigrants still entering the country every day, even as a slow trickle of others, usually single men, have started returning to their countries for lack of work in this stagnant economy. On the East End, their presence, combined with a dim financial outlook, has prompted escalating tension between the barely surviving day laborers and anti-illegal immigration protesters.

Blow Ups

On April 20, Springs resident Ricky King, an anti-illegal immigration protester, called 911 after a day laborer pulled a switchblade on him while he was protesting at the East Hampton train station.

According to East Hampton Village Police, Mr. King had first yelled ethnic slurs at the worker, Gabriel Sanchez-Nugra, who was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor count of criminal possession of a weapon.

Mr. King on Friday admitted he was cursing but said he was not aiming ethnic slurs at Mr. Sanchez-Nugra. Mr. King said that he had been trying to explain to Mr. Sanchez-Nugra that his own grandfather is Mexican, but Mr. Sanchez-Nugra could not understand English. Mr. Sanchez-Nugra just heard “Mexican” and was offended, the protester said.

“I could be out working, but I’m not because they’re undercutting me,” Mr. King said, explaining his motivation to protest. “This is a country of laws, not a country of breaking laws. I have a certain degree of sympathy and compassion for these people, but they are illegal. They are coming here because it’s a free ride—free food, free health care. Everything is handed to them! But they have no allegiance to this country.”

Later on the same morning that Mr. Sanchez-Nugra was arrested, a day laborer was also arrested in Southampton Village after a confrontation with a protester.

Tom Wedell, an East Moriches resident who protests illegal immigration near the Southampton 7-Eleven, told Southampton Village Police that the day laborer chest-butted him several times. Police said the 30-year-old laborer, who was highly intoxicated, was charged with harassment in the second degree, a violation.

Mr. Wedell said that on the day of the arrest he had just arrived at the South Fork Realty parking lot and was removing his protest sign from his truck when the laborer started in with him and tried to grab his sign away.

“I told him ‘Leave me alone. I’m allowed to protest,’” Mr. Wedell said.

Mr. Wedell said he’s been arrested four times over the past few years during his protests in Southampton. The charges have always been dropped, he said.

Standing on the corner of Aldrich Lane and North Sea Road on Friday, holding his American flag and “When they jumped the fence they broke the law” sign, Mr. Wedell recalled the first day he protested in Southampton. It was April 25, 2005.

“I was messed with pretty bad when I first started protesting,” he said. He said that a local judge flipped him off and shouted “F-you” before returning later with “half the Village Police.”

As Mr. Wedell spoke, a couple of 7-Eleven patrons shouted derogatory remarks at him. But even more patrons, and passing motorists as well, honked their horns or pumped a fist in the air.

“It’s disgusting,” one woman remarked to Mr. Wedell, gesturing to the migrant workers lining the street and offering to give Mr. Wedell money for his efforts.

Southampton Village Police Chief William Wilson said there have been isolated incidents of fights in the village between protesters and day laborers over the last five years. “I can probably count the incidents on one hand,” he added.

The police are called to the North Sea Road hot spot every day on a complaint about either the laborers or the protesters, but not any more often of late than usual, Chief Wilson said. “There’s just a lot more attention being focused on that area and the immigration and protesting issue in particular.”

It is not just the protesters whom day laborers have had trouble with.

Sister Breige Lavery of the Sisters of Mercy said a day laborer was assaulted on Hillcrest Avenue a couple months ago by two youths driving in a white SUV. “He was jumped and taken by surprise …” she said. “He couldn’t identify them.”

She said the worker, Antonio, isn’t able to take many jobs because his face is still injured.

Chief Wilson said detectives do not believe the incident was racially motivated.

“All because you have a fight between somebody who is Hispanic and somebody of white heritage or African-American heritage does not mean that it’s a racial incident …” he said.

“There was a fist fight, however, the injuries were not anything that was going to sustain any kind of felony charge or even a misdemeanor for that fact,” the chief added.

National Issue

The debate is only going to get louder as President Barack Obama, on his first visit to Mexico on April 16, pledged to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation this year.

U.S. Representative Tim Bishop said that he plans to co-sponsor that legislation.

“We know what the answer is,” Mr. Bishop said, referring to reform legislation filed last year, “but the question is how do we get it passed. It’s a very complex issue. A lot of it has to do with which region of the country you’re from. I happen to represent a region of the country, Suffolk County, that is heavily dependent on an immigrant population to maintain its economy.”

The reform legislation he supports has four legs: a call for enhanced border protection; intensifying internal enforcement by cracking down on employers who hire illegal workers; constructing a set of visa programs that is responsive to needs in the economy, such as more H2B seasonal work visas; and designing a path to earned legalization for the 12 million to 15 million undocumented immigrants who are in the country now. Mr. Bishop said the last aspect of the plan is the most controversial.

While the status quo remains, undocumented immigrants have continued to arrive here and find themselves trapped, as the demand for work is down and the resentment of citizens equally strapped by the economic downturn intensifies.

Jorge Loja, who migrated here from Ecuador nine years ago, was standing in front of the 7-Eleven last Friday, wearing a yellow hat with the motto of the historic American Gadsen flag that features a snake: “Don’t Tread on Me.” Across the street, Mr. King was waving the same yellow flag.

“I’m not a friend of them,” Mr. Loja said in Spanish, smiling, when it was pointed out that his hat matched Mr. King’s flag. “I came here to work hard, to have a new future, to seek new opportunities” he said.

Mr. Loja is leaving this month to return to Ecuador. “I haven’t had work for months,” he said. “I’m alone with no girlfriend. It’s time to go.”

A group of migrant workers gathered with Mr. Loja; all from Ecuador; all undocumented. They said they knew many men who had not been able to pay rent for months and for whom the meal from the Whitbys is all they eat for the whole day.

Every day, they take the bus, or walk or ride bikes into the village to wait for work and generally leave by noon if no one has picked them up.

In the group, Mr. Loja and Marcos Chavez, who has been here for eight years, were the two elders and both said this was the worst year they had seen. But the other five young men with them said they had arrived within the last year. It had cost each of them $14,000 to pay “coyotes” to take them from Ecuador to Mexico and then over the U.S. border. Their families in Ecuador had all chipped in to send them north with hopes they could make money and improve their lot in life.

“Guys generally have to work for two years to even pay back the trip,” Mr. Loja said.

Down the street was Oscar Javier Hernandez, who migrated from Honduras to the East End eight months ago, but worked for the first time just last Thursday—he was picked up in Southampton—after four months without a job. He hasn’t been able to pay rent in the last three months, so he is expected to also pay back his landlord once the season picks up, he said.

He was paid $120 for working 10 hours and immediately wired $50 home, where he has five children. One of his daughters has a tumor in her leg, he said. She had one operation but needs a second, which he hopes to be able to pay for if he gets more work in the coming weeks.

Mr. Hernandez said the protesters scare him, as he’s not trying to cause any trouble. He recalled one recent afternoon, when a man passed by in his car, cursed at him and gave him the finger.

Waiting for work at the East Hampton train station last Friday, Ronny Nieves of Ecuador said it was calmer than in Southampton—less tense—except for the knife incident on April 20. He also said work had started to pick up, a couple days a week. There are far fewer men waiting for work, and fewer protests.

Work overall for day laborers is still scarce though. Eloy Martinez, from Mexico, said he goes to the soup kitchen in Southampton, when he goes there looking for work, even though he lives in East Hampton.

Responding to the protests of Mr. King and others, Jorge Salvador, an Ecuadoran, asked, “If they have a problem with us, why don’t they go to government officials? There are laws here and in this country the law applies,” he said, referring to the history of rampant government and police corruption in Ecuador and Mexico. “That is something wonderful to us.”

Mr. Wedell said the level of tension between the laborers and demonstrators is on the rise.

“The more these guys don’t work, the more agitated and aggravated they become,” he said. He said he scares contractors away who would normally pick up the laborers—or at least the contractors who have the name of their business marked on the side of their car or truck. He calls immediately, he said. And when he sees a truck pick up laborers that isn’t marked, he writes down the license plate number to forward it to the IRS, he said.

A Meal

On Thursday last week, the Sisters of Mercy handed out meal tickets to migrant workers, which they could redeem for a breakfast sandwich and hot drink. On Friday, it was a brown-bag lunch: a sandwich, a piece of fruit and a bottle of water. Some of the workers also received a loaf of bread to take home.

A volunteer named Patrick whom the Sisters of Mercy recruited was carrying a satchel full of lunches on Friday, handing out meals to laborers he passed.

“I said a prayer for them at church,” he said. “They’ve been tugging at my heart for years.”

Patrick would not give his last name, but he said he has an East End restaurant and used to bring hot food to the laborers. But when the Southampton Tire soup kitchen was shut down and food safety concerns were raised, he stopped, he said.

Sister Lavery said the Sisters of Mercy are now preparing food at their convent in Water Mill with the consent of the Suffolk County health department.

Initially, the nuns had planned to carry on the soup kitchen only until April, Sister Lavery said. But the need persisted so they decided to continue indefinitely, she said. “We’re just taking it week by week. That’s the plan.”

My Wedell is opposed to handing out food to the day laborers: “It entices them to stay,” he said. “It entices more to come.”

Southampton Tire co-owner Carol Whitby said a small group of protesters staged a boycott of her business on Saturday, April 18, because of the soup kitchen. But customers still came, she added.

Ms. Whitby said that the Sisters of Mercy were only distributing food at Southampton Tire so they could keep the operation under wraps. “Once it’s out in the public, and they’re being fed seven days a week now, it really doesn’t have to be here,” she said. “We never broke the law. We never really broke the law with the board of health. It just got a little out of proportion. It’s like playing telephone in this town.”

Ever since the soup kitchen became public, there has been an outpouring of support, and just a two weekends ago, a donor came from western Suffolk County to drop off a $500 check toward the Sisters of Mercy’s efforts, she said.

“Someone came in here yesterday from a German radio station, because they want to talk about who’s sleeping in the woods,” Ms. Whitby said. “A German radio station!”

The German reporter told her that Europeans want to keep track of what happening in the United States because it will hit their continent six to nine months later, she said. “Because if this town is so exclusive, if it can happen here it can happen anywhere.”

Sister Lavery said that she was contacted last summer about migrants living in the woods behind Full Gospel Church in Southampton. She went looking for them. “We found a couple, but there had obviously been more,” she said.

The sister is also a member of the Hispanic Apostolate of the South Fork. She said many migrants have come to ask for help with rent and some have asked for help returning to their home countries.

“I know a lot of guys haven’t been able to pay their rents,” Sister Lavery said.

In the winter, it was possible to lend a hand. But as more families have lost their incomes, it is harder for the apostolate to help, she said. “At this point, our funds are depleted.”

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