New American voices in the Hudson ValleyREAD FULL STORY
Nearly every American has origins elsewhere. Foreign-born residents of the Hudson Valley, who make up more than 17 percent of the total population, are transforming communities and helping revive the economy. To watch videos of Hudson Valley immigrants recounting their journeys to America, click on the images below.
Mount Kisco, once an enclave of mostly white American-born residents, is a town transformed by immigration.
At first, only a small group of Guatemalans arrived to fill day laborer and child care openings. But over time, Mount Kisco has become home to a lively community of Spanish-speaking workers -- many from the city of Chiquimula - who now account for about a third of the population in this robust town of 12,000.
"It's many moms and dads who go to church in this community, whose children are in the schools and who contribute in ways that are not just their labor," said Carola Bracco, executive director of Neighbors Link, a Mount Kisco organization which offers job training, English classes, parenting programs, tutoring, a job bank and a hiring site where contractors can find day laborers.
"We are building a bicultural community as we prepare all of our kids for a global community," Bracco said.
Mount Kisco is not alone in seeing the impact of immigration to the United States. Throughout Westchester and the Hudson Valley, generations of immigrants over decades have come to call the suburbs north of New York City home, contributing to the labor pool, the economy and the vibrancy of their communities.
More than 370,000 residents in the Hudson Valley -- nearly a fifth of the region's population -- are immigrants. In Westchester, the 228,371 foreign-born residents make the county the third-most popular destination in the state for immigrants, right behind New York City and Nassau County on Long Island, according to the state's Office for New Americans. State statistics count another 67,596 foreign-born residents in Rockland County, 41,601 in Orange and 32,869 in Dutchess.
"What you have happening in the Hudson Valley is happening across the nation," said Zoe Colon, executive director for the Hispanic Resource Center in Mamaroneck. "Latinos and other immigrants are moving to the suburbs and not traditional destination cities like New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago."
GROWING DIVERSITY IN WESTCHESTER
Mexico is the top sender of immigrants to Westchester, followed by the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Ecuador, Italy, Guatemala, India, Colombia, China (along with Hong Kong and Taiwan), and Peru, according to "The Changing Face of Westchester," a report released by New York City's Department of City Planning.
Today, about 34.6 percent of the county's immigrants are from Spanish-speaking countries, with all Hispanic residents accounting for 22.4 percent of Westchester's total population, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, making them central to the local economy.
"The Hispanic community has pockets thriving in the Hudson Valley," said Laurence Gottlieb, president and CEO for the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation. "We're seeing more folks among those immigrants and the second generation that are reaching higher levels in management and presidents of their own companies."
SEEKING A BETTER LIFE
Immigrants who chose to come to the United States and settle in the Hudson Valley are united in their pursuit for a better life.
In story after story shared with Newsday, immigrants spoke about finding the American dream, of safety from violence, of freedom.
"This is a county of opportunity," said Abdel Rodriguez, 42, of New Rochelle, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic when he was 17. "I am living proof of that."
Rodriguez said he started out as a porter in an apartment building and over the years worked his way up. For the past four years, he has not only become the superintendent at his building but is also a property owner.
"I don't think there's any country in the world like the United States that gives the opportunity to people that are not originally from this country," Rodriguez said.
Meanwhile, Madiha Tubman, 51, of White Plains, escaped the violence in Liberia in 1991 with her 4-year-old son in tow.
"We found peace and comfort in the United States," she said.
Then there's Carin Andresen, who is in her 70s and is now living in Bedford. She recently became an American citizen after living in the United States since 1963, when her job with Pan Am Airways brought her here.
"I like the freedom of having opinions that may not be what the government tells you," Andresen said.
ISOLATION AND LONELINESS
Immigrants settle in the suburbs for the same reasons other residents move here: safe neighborhoods, good schools for their kids and jobs. But those who lack English language skills, legal status or education face isolation and other obstacles.
Some of them find that the biggest challenge is settling in a region short on train and bus service.
"If you don't have a car, it's crazy here in the Hudson Valley," said Graciela Heymann, executive director of the Westchester Hispanic Coalition of White Plains, which serves 12,000 immigrants annually on a $650,000 budget.
"Many of our clients spend an inordinate amount of time on buses. Getting from Yonkers to work in northern Westchester can take up to two hours each way," Heymann said.
For these residents, getting to English and citizenship classes becomes extremely difficult and speaks to the larger struggle of becoming part of the local community.
"People are isolated from each other," Heymann said. "They don't have common spaces like a plaza or mothers' groups . . . When you're a new immigrant, it's not like you go to the movies or a restaurant and run into anybody. You probably don't understand half of what you see."
The isolation is particularly bad for immigrants who live in the northern counties in the region and are without easy access to transportation, said Betsy Palmieri, executive director of the Cross River-based Hudson Valley Community Coalition, which works with local immigrant rights groups.
According to Palmieri, racism, too, continues to be a battle that immigrants in the region wage.
"Racial profiling is an issue everywhere in the Hudson Valley for people with dark skin," she said.
However, the most effective way for immigrants to find a place and a voice in the Hudson Valley is by learning to communicate in English, advocates said.
"We know that learning English significantly improves an immigrant's socio-economic position, allows them to get better jobs and interact with their children's schools," said Tere Wisell, associate dean for The Gateway Center at Westchester Community College, which has more than 4,000 students studying in its English-as-a-second-language programs.
IMMIGRATION BILL BRINGS NEW HOPE
What the future holds for immigrants, their families and the nation is the question behind a comprehensive legislation package now making its way through the U.S. Senate. If Congress ends up passing a bill it is considering to grant green cards to the estimated 11 million foreign-born residents without legal status in the county, some 50,000 immigrants in the Hudson Valley could potentially benefit, immigration experts said.
Unlike past attempts to overhaul federal immigration laws, discussion surrounding this bill is framed by an unprecedented awareness of the impact immigrants have on American society. Naturalized citizens voted in record numbers for President Obama's re-election, for example. And in New York, immigrants account for 21.7 percent of the state's population but they are 26.9 percent of the labor force and make up 29.4 percent of its business owners, according to the state's Office for New Americans.
Ana, for one, would likely benefit from passage of the immigration bill.
As an immigrant without legal status, she is a 60-year-old single mom who lives among the shadows in White Plains. She works as an aide to an elderly woman, doing four 18-hour shifts each week that put $150 cash in her pocket after each shift. With no vacation or benefits, she is slowly paying off a $7,000 hospital bill from a recent bout with pneumonia. Yet, the college-educated social worker from the Dominican Republic is proud to say that she pays her taxes every year.
"I like to do this kind of job because I am a social worker," said Ana, who does not want her real name used for fear of deportation. "I'm doing elder care in America where there are many lonely older people. I think I can make a difference."
Ana, who has been in the country since the late 1990s, after overstaying her visitor's visa, has been able to earn enough money over the years at low-paying, off-the-books jobs to help put all four of her kids through college back in the Dominican Republic.
She now is investing in her own education, going through English language classes at Cabrini Immigrant Services, a Dobbs Ferry nonprofit that is also helping her enroll in a certification program in home and nursing care for the elderly.
For Ana, the United States, and specifically Westchester, is now home.
"That's the good thing about America," she said. "There is opportunity."
Story by Betty Ming Liu and Jillian Sederholm
Video by Elizabeth Daza
Project contributors: Matthew Cassella, Elizabeth Daza, Mario Gonzalez, Xavier Mascareñas, Nirmal Mitra, Katherine Santiago and Jillian Sederholm