12: Immigration Advocacy

It was her family’s history that gave Amy a natural inclination toward making immigration one of the foundation’s signature issues. It was a current-day immigration controversy at the heart of Long Island that brought Sandow to the issue.

A struggle was taking place in Farmingville, a blue-collar community in central Suffolk County. Large numbers of immigrant day workers had arrived from Mexico and Central America, and they were becoming increasingly visible on the streets of Farmingville, waiting for someone to drive up in a car or truck and hire them for a day’s work. This was not going over well with the community.

The complaints from long-time Farmingville residents focused on such issues as large numbers of men living together in one home on a residential street. For the workers, this was a necessity. They were making more money here than they could have made in their home countries, but they weren’t making enough so that each worker could afford to rent his own house or apartment and still have enough to send money home to family in Latin America. So they split the cost of housing and living together with other day workers. To some owners of single-family homes on streets where this was happening, it seemed deeply threatening, especially since they were accustomed to living in a community where the vast majority of residents were white and US-born.

That sense of threat and fear led to the formation of a local and vocal anti-immigrant group called Sachem Quality of Life. Soon, Farmingville became so visible that national anti-immigrant groups began showing up to add their voices. The tumult turned violent. In 2000, two men lured two day laborers to a vacant building with the promise of work, then beat them viciously. In 2003, someone firebombed the home of a Mexican family of five. The house was next door to the one where the two day workers beaten in 2000 had lived. It was across the street from the Church of the Resurrection, the local Catholic parish.

It was at a meeting at the church that Sandow’s involvement with the day laborers in Farmingville began. The person who had called the meeting was Christenia Reimann. She had run the Campaign for Human Development at Catholic Charities, had funded immigrant advocacy groups, and later worked for the Presiding Officer Paul Tonna of the Suffolk County Legislature, a staunch immigrant advocate at a difficult time. “He really stuck his neck out to champion that,” Reimann said of Tonna. Others at the meeting included Connie Hornick, the parish outreach coordinator, whose steadfast position of helping the day workers did not please everyone in the parish.

“There were tears shed at that meeting,” Sandow recalled. “At that point, I was basically theirs.”

Well, not completely theirs. In the months that followed that meeting at Resurrection, Sandow became increasingly involved in the Farmingville struggles, but he still had a demanding day job at the Long Island Community Foundation. So he’d work at the LICF offices during the day, then drive east to Farmingville to spend evenings as a volunteer. “I remember many nights driving home at like midnight,” Sandow said. As he drove west to his home, Reimann would be on the cell phone with him, helping to keep him awake. “Darren was a real pioneer,” Reimann recalled. “There are no words to describe his dedication to that issue.”

At the Long Island Community Foundation, Sandow’s work involved making grants. “What I quickly learned was that grant-making could only go so far to help those folks,” he said. “They needed somebody to help them get organized, and they were afraid. None of them had done any public speaking. None of them had done any kind of organizing around an issue campaign. They were all fearful for their community and for their church.”

Sandow became so involved in Farmingville that he appeared in the 2004 documentary, Farmingville, by Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini—partly underwritten by a grant from Horace and Amy’s fund. Sandow did try to keep his job at LICF separate from his volunteer role and his work with a moderate community group called Brookhaven Citizens for Peaceful Solutions, and he tried not to be identified as an employee of the community foundation in stories in Newsday, the Long Island daily.

One prominent story featuring Sandow and naming the LICF pleased the community foundation’s executive director, Suzy Sonenberg, but drew disapproval from her board chairman and from the New York Community Trust, the parent organization of the LICF. “They read her the riot act, and then had Suzy meet with me and offer me an option,” Sandow recalled. “They said, either we give you a grant and you go do your work with Brookhaven Citizens for Peaceful Solutions, or you stay here, shut up, don’t get in the newspaper, and stop this work, and do your job as the program director for the Long Island Community Foundation.”

Sandow decided that his best contribution would be to stay at LICF. He did continue volunteering in Farmingville, while stepping back a bit and being more careful about how he was mentioned and quoted. So, when Amy launched her new foundation in 2005, and Sandow became executive director, he already had a deep grounding in the local immigration issue.

The politics of immigration had begun to grow more complicated in 2003, during the campaign for county executive in Suffolk County. One of the candidates was Steve Levy, a member of the State Assembly and former county legislator, primarily known as a fiscal conservative. In January 2003, he issued 16-page manifesto outlining his positions. It did not contain a single word about immigration. But his position soon began to become clear.

In July, a few weeks before the Democratic primary, Levy’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, William Cunningham, called for a hiring site for day laborers in Farmingville. Anti-immigrant activists tried to disrupt his speech and called him a “terrorist sympathizer.” In contrast, Levy came out clearly against a hiring site. “I don’t know how you tell an unemployed union worker that the government is going to expend funds to promote illegal hiring that will undercut their wages,” Levy said.

Levy defeated Cunningham in the primary and went on to win the general election. In 2007, running with the endorsement of both major parties, Levy won re-election almost by acclamation. As his two terms in office unfolded, his anti-immigrant rhetoric continued, and he took the position that the county should legislatively address a problem that is essentially a federal issue. It was during the Levy years that the foundation was born, and Sandow was well acquainted with the county executive’s poisonous attitude on the immigrants that the foundation wanted to help.

Sandow also understood that any approach to supporting the immigrant community on Long Island, especially as the local debate continued to remain heated and highly contentious, would require a carefully considered strategy. Sandow understood from the beginning not only that it was important to support immigrant rights organizations, but also that the key to easing tensions would need to include injecting facts into the local debate in a number of ways. The multipronged strategy he landed on included building a strong base in the immigrant community, legal and policy advocacy, immigrant integration, messaging and media, and research.

A few years later, he realized that continuing to oversee both the national and local immigration programs was going to be too much work for one person. So Sandow hired Sandra Dunn to run the local immigration work, allowing him to focus on the national scene, such as serving on the board of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR). By the time Dunn joined the foundation in 2008, Sandow had put together an array of immigration grantees and strategies.

After teaching Spanish at Middlebury College in Vermont, Dunn moved to Long Island in 1998, settling in Hampton Bays. “I was surprised to see how many Latinos there were on the East End, coming from Vermont, where at that time there were virtually no Latinos,” Dunn recalled. “I tried to find a way to be of use.” The daughter of an immigrant mother from Spain, Dunn was eager to be involved with the local Latino community. That included working as a literacy volunteer teaching English to recent immigrants and, later, giving private Spanish lessons to US-born residents who saw Long Island’s changing demographics and understood the importance of speaking Spanish.

In 2002, Dunn joined a new advocacy organization called OLA (Organización Latino Americana) of Eastern Long Island, first as a volunteer, then as a board member and, briefly, as part-time executive director, until she was tapped to run for a seat on the Southampton Town Council, prompting her resignation from OLA in 2007. She lost, but Hagedorn won. Soon after the election, she saw the ad for the Hagedorn job and applied. She started work in February 2008.

The grantees Sandow had funded before Dunn’s arrival included a hiring site for immigrant day workers in a trailer in the Village of Freeport; the Farmingville Residents Association, meant to be a rational counterpoint to the intense anti-immigrant sentiment in Farmingville; Long Island Wins, a communications effort designed to amplify the voice of immigrants; Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, which later became LatinoJustice PRLDEF; Empire Justice Center; Long Island Jobs with Justice; Long Island Immigrant Alliance; and others.

He had also funded a serious economic analysis focused on the Hispanic population, immigrant and non-immigrant, on Long Island. Released in early 2007 and written by Mariano Torras, an associate professor of economics at Adelphi University, and Curtis Skinner, the report analyzed the economic impact of Long Island’s Hispanic residents. It found that Hispanic residents add nearly $5.7 billion to the Long Island economy. “This study points out that we are largely better off on Long Island because of immigrants,” Amy told Newsday. “They are paying more in taxes than they are using.”

A Newsday editorial underlined the report’s significance: “This is a younger population, growing much faster than the region as a whole. So, for decades to come, Latinos are likely to be an increasingly major force here on Long Island—economically, culturally and politically. Thanks to the Horace Hagedorn Foundation and the report’s authors, we now have a more detailed idea of who they are and where they are. This report should be must reading for our public officials at all levels of government.”

A year later, after Dunn had joined the Hagedorn staff, Torras produced another Hagedorn-funded report, this time broadening the scope to include immigrants of all national origins. It valued the impact of their total spending on the Long Island economy at $10.6 billion a year. It also showed that immigrants paid $2,305 more per person in government taxes and fees than they cost governments.

In the face of emotional, fear-ridden responses to immigration, the Hagedorn Foundation continued to provide reasoned, fact-based information. In late 2011, David Dyssegaard Kallick, senior fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute and director of the institute’s Immigration Research Initiative, produced a report called “New Americans on Long Island: A Vital Sixth of the Economy.” It showed, among other findings, that almost half of the Island’s immigrants worked in white-collar jobs, that more of them worked in service jobs than in construction, and that almost 25 percent of small business owners on Long Island are immigrants. Hagedorn funded a 2015 update of this study, the title of which indicated even greater economic contributions from immigrants, who were, just four years later, “A Vital Fifth of the Economy.”

In addition to the academic studies, the foundation added to the knowledge base about immigration by funding polling. Early polls in 2006 and 2007 had showed that Long Islanders had strongly negative attitudes about immigration. In September 2011, a survey by Harstad Strategic Research and Westen Strategies tested messages about immigrants and immigration, in order to provide candidates running for county executive in Suffolk County with constructive ways of discussing immigration that would not further divide the community or alienate Long Island-born residents. The polling also examined the importance of immigration in the election. Despite the climate that had been established by Levy and other local elected officials, the poll showed that immigration was not exactly a burning concern.

Asked to name the issues that they would most like the next county executive to address, 49 percent named taxes and government spending, but only six percent cited illegal immigration, which came in below crime at nine percent and traffic at nine percent.

“We were testing messages, and we wanted to find positive, safe ways of talking about immigration, so that elected officials didn’t have to pander to the vocal anti-immigrant minority,” Dunn said. The foundation offered the survey results to both major-party candidates, Republican Angie Carpenter and Democrat Steve Bellone. “The Carpenter campaign was absolutely not interested,” Dunn said. “But the Bellone campaign was very receptive. Bellone was also meeting with immigrant leaders during his campaign.” Bellone won, and his attitude toward immigrants turned out to be far more enlightened than Levy’s.

Another bit of progress was a 2013 poll that asked registered voters their opinion of a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill offered by eight senators. The results: 80 percent of respondents favored the bill.

“This was light years away from 2006,” Dunn said, referring to the results of earlier Hagedorn polling. “I think we can see that our funding did help move the needle.” Results on this issue do not come overnight. “Community organizing and policy and legal advocacy work take years of long, very dedicated work,” Dunn said. “It’s incremental, it’s slow, and it’s hard. So we stick with our grantees who are doing this work because we understand we’re not going to get tangible results every year.”

Managing the foundation’s local immigration portfolio, of course, involved far more than coordinating studies and polling. Like other areas of the foundation’s work, it required a blend of getting involved and keeping some distance, a delicate balance not always easy to maintain. In one case, the Freeport trailer, what was needed was nothing less than a death and a rebirth. The site for day laborers, managed by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, was not exactly in a prime location—too set back from the highway, too hidden. Sandow, and later Dunn, had been talking with the village and others about how to improve the participation of day laborers in the services available at the trailer. Then a new administration took power in Freeport.

“We were going to shut down the trailer, because there hadn’t been enough cooperation from the previous administration,” Dunn said. “The newly elected mayor begged us, ‘Don’t shut down the trailer.’ We said, ‘Get us a plan….’ We gave them a reasonable deadline, but they did nothing.” So Hagedorn shut down the trailer. But it soon became apparent that there was a way of reopening it. Her name was Liz O’Shaughnessy, a local resident who had been dropping off clothing at the trailer as a volunteer.

“She felt that her calling was to be the manager of this trailer and had a vision of it being a real community center for day laborers,” Dunn said. “She established a good working relationship with one of the Freeport village trustees and continued to go to the trailer, even though it had been shut down, and give English classes in the parking lot. Soon after we shut it down, we reopened it, thanks to Liz. She incorporated as CoLoKi: compassion, love, and kindness.” But O’Shaughnessy continued to call it, simply, the Freeport trailer, and Hagedorn continued to fund its work.

The foundation’s immigration work also involved leadership on a national issue that in 2014 suddenly had a very local face: the arrival of thousands of children fleeing gang violence and other lethal threats in Central America, then crossing through Mexico into the United States. The foundation was at the heart of efforts to help Long Islanders understand the plight of these children, to see them as something other than just more immigrants without the right documents.

Prompted by a phone call from Gwen O’Shea, the Hagedorn Foundation teamed up with the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, where O’Shea was then the executive director, to call together stakeholders concerned with these refugee children.

“Had this been happening 10 or 15 years ago, before Hagedorn was here, I don’t think this type of meeting could have taken place,” said O’Shea. At this meeting, in September 2014, Dunn outlined the facts and figures of the increase in the number of refugee children arriving in the country and on Long Island. At the time of the conference, the main sending country was Honduras—one city in particular, San Pedro Sula, had the highest homicide rate in the world—though the majority of the children arriving on Long Island were from El Salvador.

Between October 1, 2013 and August 31, 2014 immigration authorities apprehended 66,127 unaccompanied children at the southwest border. About 2,200 of them came to Long Island to live with family members or family friends during that time period. Some members of the public, however, “welcomed” them with hostility. The most vexing case was that of a Lutheran pastor who offered to shelter some of the kids but faced an angry outcry from the community near his church, leading him to back away from his open-hearted plans. Clearly, the job of advocates was to provide factual information and to alleviate fears.

To respond to the needs of these children, whose numbers on Long Island have increased to over 8,500, Hagedorn Foundation, in partnership with the Long Island Community Foundation, created a fund at LICF, to which several Long Island funders contributed. The fund provided legal services and other advocacy, and additional donors joined this collaborative effort.

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