“Immigration and its Impact on the South Fork,” a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton on Monday, had as one of its premises the understanding that the region, like so many others in this country, has long depended on immigrants to supply its labor force.
But tensions between early arrivals and newcomers has existed since the founding of the republic, according to panelist Martha Potter, a retired teacher and librarian from Sag Harbor, who provided a detailed summary of changes in immigration policy throughout American history.
She noted that the country’s first immigration law, passed in 1790 when George Washington was president, limited immigration to “free white persons” of upstanding moral character. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, passed in response to a growing number of Chinese immigrants, was the first measure to explicitly prohibit a specific ethnic group.
Ms. Potter said that the rise of Ellis Island as the country’s central processing point for immigrants in the late 19thcentury played a major role in the development of the East End. When Joseph Fahys moved his watchcase factory to Sag Harbor “recruiters from the factory went to Ellis Island and offered immigrants jobs,” she said, bringing an influx of Jewish immigrants to the village. Similarly, Polish immigrants coming through Ellis Island found their way to the East End, where they worked on large estates or became farmers.
The Immigration Reform Act of 1986, which provided limited amnesty while stepping up enforcement, has led to a growing underground economy, resulting in the current debate over immigration, Ms. Potter said.
Restrictions on immigrant labor is having an effect on resorts like Gurney’s Inn, said that hotel’s general manager, Michael Nenner. Gurney’s typically hires about 100 workers on temporary work visas, many of whom have returned each year, he said. When Congress created a lottery program and reduced the number of visas available, Gurney’s lost 16 employees who would have otherwise returned, he said.
The company hires only legal employees and applies for visas “at 12:01 on New Year’s” when the federal government begins to accept applications each year, he said. Because of the reduction in the number of visas available, “there will be a whole lot more work in the market for locals who want to work in the hospitality industry,” he said. There is a need for workers, he stressed, noting that with occupancy rates up at resorts in Montauk, “there are other resorts that don’t have employees that are going to be struggling this year.”
Rob Carpenter, the administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said his organization also relies on immigrant workers to help fill some of the estimated 7,500 jobs on 600 farms across Long Island. Mr. Carpenter said farm bureau members hire both seasonal workers, who often return to the same farm every year, as well as immigrants, but he said that relying on visa programs is often an expensive and cumbersome process that cuts into paper-thin profit margins. Housing is another issue. “Where do we find the housing necessary to keep workers here?” he asked, referring to the high cost of housing across the island.
Many Americans are reluctant to work on farms because the work is simply too hard, he said, while immigrants are happy to have the work because they can return home during the off-season and “live extravagantly on the wages they make here.”
The need for immigration reform is one of farmers’ most pressing concerns. “Hopefully, the government will find a way to come up with some reasonable immigration reform, so people can come and live here and get a job here and become citizens eventually,” he said.
Former East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said it true that a growing immigrant have an impact on the services provided by schools, local governments and hospitals.
“The growth in the population of people who come here primarily to make a living and provide services needed in the community presents those kinds of issues that we, as a community, have to deal with,” he said.
Among those are the need for more Spanish speakers in schools and in government offices, including police departments. Overcrowded housing, which poses health and safety issues, also places a burden on government officials who are charged with enforcing the code and trying to solve housing needs, he added.
While the presence of a growing immigrant community has led to different responses among different people, Mr. Cantwell said he thought people should try to understand their situation and paraphrased Pope Francis. “Those who raise concerns about immigration should walk in the shoes of those trying to protect their children and give them a better life,” he said.