PATCHOGUE, N.Y.—There are places where campaign rally-goers chanted “Build the Wall” in the fall of 2016 where most voters might scarcely have seen an immigrant, let alone an illegal one. Take Washington County, Wisconsin, where Donald Trump campaigned in the waning days of the election and won by 40 points. According to census data, the immigrant population there is under 3 percent, and the undocumented population negligible. In Saginaw County, Michigan, which flipped from Obama to Trump, the foreign-born population is under 2.5 percent. Howard County in Iowa, which swung 41 points in Trump’s favor in 2016, is 98 percent white.
In New York’s Suffolk County, though, on the eastern half of Long Island, the feeling of immigrants moving in is real and has been for some time. Driven by home-building, landscaping and an agricultural industry that, until 2015, was the state’s most lucrative, the Latino population in Suffolk increased by 40 percent between 2005 and 2009. By 2015, they were 18 percent of the population of 1.5 million, and by some estimations could be up to 30 percent of the population in 10 years. An estimated 51,000 undocumented immigrants now reside there.
And few counties in America swung as dramatically for Trump as Suffolk did. The county went for Barack Obama twice, including by four points in 2012. Then Trump crushed Clinton here, winning by eight points, the biggest margin of victory in a presidential election in Suffolk since Al Gore beat George W. Bush by 11 points in 2000. The result was so surprising that when an October 2016 poll showed Trump up by three points in New York’s 1st Congressional District, which covers most of the county, political scientists came out and publicly declared that the poll had to be wrong. It wasn’t.
In the wake of the November 2016 elections, an image was formed in the public’s mind of “Trump Country,” those down-and-out places in the Rust Belt where the factory moved to Mexico a decade ago, the only decent jobs could be found at Walmart, and where white working-class voters threw their lot with someone who blamed other people—immigrants, Muslims, Black Lives Matter—for their problems. But it is impossible to talk about the Trump coalition without talking about places like Suffolk, filled with towns and people who have benefitted immensely from the global order that Trump promised to upend.
Suffolk’s success meant that people wanted to move here, and the fact that people wanted to move here meant that the residents set up barriers to keep them out. And as immigrants arrived—some from abroad, and not necessarily legally—so did gangs. Trump has made Suffolk a poster county in a way for his administration, campaigning hard there in the primary and already appearing twice there as president, including this week, when he hosted a roundtable on MS-13 in Bethpage.
Why did this one-time Democratic stronghold, 36 miles east of Manhattan, a place of well-kept homes and the Hamptons, where a third of residents have college degrees and median incomes are approaching $100,000 a year, flip so dramatically? And what did Donald Trump—who grew up just west of here, in Queens, understand about Suffolk County that Hillary Clinton did not?
“The mistake Barack Obama and the Democrat Party made was with this concept of globalization,” said John Jay Lavalle from behind his desk at the county’s Republican headquarters, where the accoutrements of a life lived among the party establishment were everywhere: photos of Lavalle with both Bushes, with John McCain, with Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Al D’Amato. “That’s the difference between our parties right now. The Democrats are more into globalizing America, and we are speaking more about securing our borders and rewriting our immigration policies.”
Lavalle was one of the first establishment Republicans in the country to endorse Trump. He became a ready Trump surrogate, appearing on his behalf dozens of times on cable news. After the “Access Hollywood” tape was released, Lavalle was one of Trump’s only defenders. “Trump speaks our language,” Lavelle says. “He thinks the way we think. He talks the way we talk. He is breaking the political correctness of America.”
It is a sentiment I heard again and again in Suffolk, during dozens of conversations over the past five months. Stacey Bishop has three degrees and her own modular home building business. We spoke before she was spending a weekend away on Cape Cod. She voted for Obama twice, but as for Trump, she said, “I love him. He’s failing Twitter 101, but he’s awesome.” She liked mostly that a) he wasn’t Hillary Clinton and b) “He’s not political. He’s not indoctrinated in that kiss-ass political machine.”
“Look at the dynamics on the east end of the island,” she went on to say. “Before it was quote-unquote discovered, it was a very tight-knit community. You would pick up the newspaper and there would be a story about a pumpkin stolen from the pumpkin patch. It was safe, everybody knew everybody. It was the quintessential American town. Now somehow it’s a ‘sanctuary area.’ We have an accused murderer who has been deported who keeps coming back, MS-13 members who keep coming back. That is what is going on, and people don’t see it because they say these are quote-unquote good people.”
One night in November 2008, a gang of mostly white teenagers drove around the towns of eastern Long Island, drinking beer and going “beaner-hopping.” They shot one Hispanic man with a B.B gun several times in his driveway. They jumped on an unsuspecting Latino immigrant in the park and beat him up until he was able to flee. They punched another out cold. At around midnight, near the Long Island Railroad station, they found Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant who worked at a dry cleaner and who had lived in the United States for 16 years. He fought back, and one of the group stabbed him.
“To them, it was a sport,” the district attorney said at their arraignment.
They all went to prison, the ringleader for 25 years. The incident brought a period of reckoning to the area. Community leaders wondered aloud what had become of Suffolk. Local politicians who regularly trafficked in anti-immigrant rhetoric toned it down.
Trump campaigned hard in Suffolk ahead of the New York primary, which he won as part of his glide path to the Republican nomination. In the weeks before the vote in 2016 he rallied before a crowd of 15,000 at Grumman Studios, a converted sound stage carved out of an old defense factory. Grumman was one the nation’s largest aerospace contractors and the only remaining builder of military aircraft in the northeast when it shuttered its doors in Suffolk at the end of the Cold War in 1993, moving its operations to South Carolina and points south. Twenty-five thousand jobs were lost, along with untold numbers of contractors and service workers who relied on the plant.
At Grumman, the crowd chanted “Build the Wall” while Trump pledged to “knock the hell out of ISIS.”
“We don’t fight like people from Long Island,” he lamented to the crowd.
The next week, he rallied again, this time in Patchogue, down the street from where Marcelo Lucero was killed.
“We love the country,” Trump said. “There are a lot of people, they don’t love our country so much. We have people that are in office that do not love our country so much. Believe me. And I see it.”
Last summer, Trump returned to Suffolk for a rally in Brentwood where he vowed to take on MS-13, which has gained a local foothold. Police say the Central American gang killed 17 people during an 18-month period that ended last year. At the rally, Trump described American cities as “bloodstained killing fields” and urged police to not go easy on suspects. “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’” Trump told the crowd.
“Like, when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put your hand over” their head. “Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody. Don’t hit their head. I said, ‘You can take the hand away, O.K.?’”—a remark that local police officers rebuked.
“One by one, we’re liberating American towns” he boasted.
But to call Suffolk’s sudden swing to the right a purely Trumpian phenomenon isn’t quite right. For 12 years, beginning in 2002, the 1st Congressional District was represented by Tim Bishop, a liberal Democrat with a background in university administration. He was considered vulnerable by national Democrats every year, but he kept winning, no matter the country’s mood: big in 2006 and 2008, a 268-vote victory in the Tea Party year of 2010, then a relaxed five-point win in a 2012 rematch.
In 2014, Bishop was routed by Lee Zeldin, an Army veteran and Republican state lawmaker. That summer, the U.S. saw thousands of undocumented immigrants pouring across the border. Polls showed support for immigrants plummet in Suffolk, and Zeldin grabbed onto the issue, accusing Bishop of supporting “amnesty” and proclaiming that the border had become vulnerable because agents were forced to “babysit the surge of children coming across the border.”
Zeldin’s campaign caught Trump’s eye. The future president robo-called on behalf of Zeldin during his 2014 race, and he called Zeldin after both his primary and general election victories. Then Zeldin and his wife dined at Mar-a-Lago with Donald and Melania.
In 2016, Zeldin attended the Republican convention that nominated Trump for president. Of the 11 Republicans that the Cook Political Reportrated as a “toss-up” for re-election to the House that year, he was the only one who showed up. He called the Clinton Foundation “the largest white-collar crime that is taking place in this country.” After the Iran nuclear agreement was reached, Zeldin released a statement suggesting that President Obama was a secret foreign agent. And after Trump said that Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Mexican heritage should prevent him from presiding over the Trump University case, Zeldin went on CNN and, in a painfully awkward appearance, accused Barack Obama of being the realracist for microtargeting different communities during his re-election campaign.
Even so, Zeldin won re-election easily, and in a sign of the political temperature of Suffolk County, has since turned into the biggest Trump cheerleader this side of Diamond and Silk. After Trump’s “shithole countries” remark, Zeldin took to Twitter to defend him. “Pres @realDonaldTrump wasn’t elected for his ability or willingness to be politically correct. The fact is that there are many nations in the world struggling mightily,” he wrote. “Politically & economically, w poor infrastructure, schools, physical security & more.” He defended Trump’s comments after Charlottesville, has publicly stated that Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize and co-authored a resolution calling for a second special counsel to be appointed to investigate Hillary Clinton and any possible misconduct by the Justice Department and FBI during the 2016 campaign. For Zeldin’s efforts, Steve Bannon has come to Suffolk County to fundraise for him, and Donald Trump, Jr. is scheduled to visit in August.
No Democratic operative I spoke with thinks Zeldin is seriously in danger of losing this fall, a sign of how far to the right the district has shifted. Zeldin’s office ignored multiple requests for an interview. But at a forum Zeldin arranged with officials from the Department of Interior about the prospect of off-shore drilling along Suffolk County’s beautiful shoreline, I asked him about the shifting politics of his county.
“It’s different out here,” he told me. “The east end of Long Island isn’t Manhattan. You talk about illegal immigration, someone in Brookhaven is more motivated to combating illegal immigration compared to someone in Manhattan, where if they are talking about illegal immigration they are prioritizing something that brings more of it, or has some type of amnesty proposal.
“We have communities that have been dealing with illegal immigration for a long time,” he continued. “Communities where you have been living in your home for your whole life and all of a sudden you literally have three or four houses around you where there used to be a family living there and now there are three families living there, and the three families aren’t even related, and they are all going to the local school. That has been going on for a long time, before I was ever running for office and it has impacted quality of life and it has impacted the numbers in the school district.”
Talk to enough residents of the area though, and it is hard not to come away with the feeling that it is not immigration per se that is the issue. Almost everyone knows or lives alongside or employs or works with a Latino. Peter Ekstrom is a high-end cabinet-maker, a literature major at St. John’s in Queens who minored in philosophy. “Do you know how much perseverance it takes to travel across Mexico, sneak across the border, make your way to Holbrook and stand at the corner of Horseblock Road at 5 a.m. looking for work for the day?” Ekstrom told me. “These are awesome people. They are the bedrock of America.”
Still, he voted for Trump. In dozens of conversations with residents over several months, there was a persistent sense that even if they were doing OK financially, the promise of the Obama years had failed to materialize. Worse, everything was changing too fast, too soon.
“They feel the ground shifting underneath them. They need somebody to assure them that there is firmament under their feet,” says Hy Miriampolski, a Trump Republican who lives in the Hamptons and works as a marketing research consultant. “It’s not as simple as nostalgia. You go to a movie and you want to go to the soda shop afterwards, and the soda shop is gone. You want to go to the Irish bar and there isn’t an Irish bar. There are a lot of people around here that are hunters. You bag a deer, and it was like anything, like fishing or picking fruit off a tree, but all of a sudden everyone is bugged about it. Take transgender bathrooms. You’d see transgenders”—as he put it—“in places like this. You say, ‘Oh, so-and-so’s kid dresses like a girl.’ So what? There wasn’t an interest group that was demanding something. It wasn’t a crisis in society. You could go out and live your life and not have everything open to negotiation or be worried that there was some kind of stressful interaction about to come down. Even out here in supposedly ultra-liberal eastern Suffolk people know this.”
None of the people I spoke with would consider themselves rich, even though by any standard of measurement they are. It is one of the paradoxes of living in a place like Suffolk. A cop and a school teacher can have an annual household income of more than $100,000. But they are sandwiched between the Hamptons and Manhattan, and pay some of the highest property taxes in the country.
A common story in the county, one I heard over and over, is of older people whose children have gone to college and never came back. Faced with an empty nest, the parents would like to leave too, head to Florida or South Carolina to live out their golden years, but faced with high property taxes and a high cost of living, can’t find a buyer, and so find themselves stuck.
“In any other part of the country, they would be classified as upper middle class,” says Lawrence Levy, the director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “But out here they are living paycheck-to-paycheck. They own a $375,000 house they can’t sell, they take out a second mortgage to pay for their kids’ college. They see themselves as hurting. They see themselves as ignored. They had the opportunity to make a statement about it, and that is what they did.”
“People are pissed off,” says Nick Gourevitch, a New York City-based pollster who has worked extensively in Suffolk for Democratic candidates. “There is a huge tax burden. Everybody thinks they are completely overtaxed, they think all of their politicians are corrupt. There is this general feeling that people have less than they used to, that Long Island used to be this magnificent place, a first-of-its kind suburb where things were happening, and it has changed. My kids moved away because it costs too much to live here. Nobody sticks around anymore and the services are bad. And it’s just not the same. People talk about leaving the county and never coming back.”
In 2003, Steve Levy, a Democrat and an immigration hard-liner, won election to the post of Suffolk County executive. He immediately proposed giving local police officers the authority to detain illegal immigrants taken into custody and prohibited local government contractors from hiring illegal immigrants. He cracked down on the day laborers who lined the sidewalks looking for work. He said a local maternity ward was closing due to the influx of “anchor babies” and became a regular on Lou Dobbs. A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center said that Levy’s rhetoric and policies were “creating a climate of fear” in Suffolk County.
“Their report was trash,” Levy says now, seven years after he left office. We were driving his hybrid electric car around the town of Islip, a mixed-income town in Suffolk that has seen a spike in immigration and in gang activity in recent years. He pointed out the hardware store that had closed when the Home Depot came to town, and then the Home Depot that was closing because of Amazon. We drove past well-kept neighborhoods and he pointed out places where an untidy yard meant that he suspected there was more than one family living there, and he pointed with pride to a 7/11 that was free of day laborers. It was raining. An older Hispanic walked down a side street, a plastic bag slung over his shoulder. “Look at this fellow,” Levy said, slowing the car down. “Probably illegal.”
“Democrats see illegal immigration as a core voting bloc,” he told me. “And Republicans don’t want to offend their Democrat friends. These voters here, they say no one speaks for me. And that’s why Trump won.”
When Levy came into office, he said, towns were overrun with single-family homes with 60 people living in them, mostly single men. He cracked down on that and other quality-of-life infractions, winning re-election with 96 percent of the vote. After the Lucero murder, however, opinion changed on Levy, as immigrant-rights groups and editorial boards blamed his hot rhetoric for, if not quite creating the climate of suspicion in Suffolk, at least rendering him mute in the face of its worst manifestation. Levy’s anti-immigrant “outbursts,” wrote the New York Times in one editorial, “have made him a nationally known spokesman for the fed-up, mostly white, middle-class citizens who see a seemingly pell-mell influx of Spanish-speaking people and fear for their way of life.”
“The illegal immigration lobby is incredibly powerful,” Levy says in response. “They manipulate the media, they make it seem like they are the good guys and the rest of us are racist. Here you get slammed for being anti-immigrant because you don’t want 60 people in a single-family home. It’s sick that people try to paint Suffolk as intolerant. It is not. These are educated people. They recoil at Trump’s tweets.”
According to Levy, Obama lost Suffolk when the federal government tried to relocate 4,700 unaccompanied minors from the 2014 border surge there. “Warehousing them in our communities,” Levy says.
“People out here, they want the white picket fence on a half-acre of land. They want people to respect zoning laws. They want to preserve the suburban character of their neighborhood. They moved away from Brooklyn and Queens to be here. They know it is not the country, but they like the suburban character of it and they want to keep it. And they gave up talking about these things. People get really tired of being called racist. And they saw that Trump wasn’t afraid to talk about it.”
One reason Suffolk became such a magnet for immigrants is that although much of the county is middle class or beyond, pockets of it have wealth beyond imagining. The Hamptons, on the island’s east end, have the highest real estate prices in the nation. On summer weekends, vacationers from New York City clog the highways, or, if they can afford the helicopter ride—and many can—the airways.
“If you live on the east end of Long Island you have seen the influx of these Manhattan people who build mega-mansions, who have brought their money and brought all these illegal aliens and crime,” says Paul Giardina, a recently retired nuclear engineer who lives in the wealthy enclave of East Hampton. A career official with the Environmental Protection Agency with a side business breeding horses, he lives in a book-lined home off the main road with his wife, his children having grown and moved away. A lifelong Republican, Giardina couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump, but now wishes he had. “I am a fiscal conservative,” he says. “That does not make me a racist, and that does not make me a sexist.”
Despite the isolated pockets of a gang influx, crime in Suffolk remains at record lows, dropping by two-thirds since 1991. Still, according to Jon Schneider, a former spokesman for Rep. Bishop, “People have the sense that MS-13 is running the county. You never win elections by telling people they are wrong. And sometimes people don’t want to hear good news.”
And still residents of Suffolk suffer, under wages that have slowed since the boom years of the ’80s and ’90s, from too-high taxes, with home values that haven’t recovered since the crash. Yet residents deserve some of the blame. For a place that is doing relatively well, Suffolk is almost devoid of millennials. Young people who grew up here, equipped with decent educations and cultural capital, fled to places with more opportunity and haven’t looked back, leaving an older generation stuck in place.
“My kids are doing great in terms of the global economy; they have good educations, good jobs, but they can’t do anything here in Suffolk,” says Miriampolski, the marketing research consultant. “If you live here and you were expecting your grandkids to live down the street, well, it’s not going to happen.”
And that’s largely because the residents of Suffolk County have wanted it that way. Suffolk is an island within an island. You can’t get further away from America unless you move to a houseboat on the Atlantic Ocean. And people fought for it to stay suburban, even as young people were streaming into cities and rejecting cars for bikes and Uber. In the ’90s, big box stores sprang up on the highways outside of most towns, and the downtowns emptied out. And the residents by and large did nothing, preferring blight and neglect if it meant people would keep out. In 2010, Rep. Tim Bishop secured funding for a water transmission line between two towns. Residents erupted in protest, fearing it would create a new demand for development.
And although diverse by any standard, Suffolk is also one of the most segregated places in America, a place where the county sheriff, an African-American man, went door-to-door to campaign and residents called the police on him. And nothing can solicit protest more than proposals to revitalize Suffolk’s downtowns with dense housing and mixed-use development, proposals that elicit cries of “We left Queens to get away from that!”
In Smithtown, town officials wanted to build a 260-unit apartment complex downtown on the site of a shuttered concrete plant. A 2014 town hall to discuss the project descended into a shouting match.
“A four-story monolith in our community is beyond reason … It’s just simply a case of the type of people you’re going to be having in there,” said one 72-year-old resident of the town. “You’re talking about transients. You’re not talking about people who are moving in, like we all did, with the intent of putting down roots.”
Another resident was even blunter: “It’s like New York City coming out to Smithtown. This is not what I signed up for.”
And so in most Suffolk towns, because there is very limited rental housing and home prices are too high, there is no place for young people to live. And because there are few places for young people to live, there are few jobs for them. It is a vicious circle, one that many people are invested in keeping.
After Marcello Rucero was killed, Patchogue became one of the only towns in the county to try a different tack. Under the direction of Mayor Paul Pontieri, Patchogue pushed through affordable housing projects and a revitalized downtown. Pontieri pointed out the new housing development that used to be a few derelict homes and a discount mattress store, the 1,200-seat theater that had been rebuilt (a David Bowie tribute act was doing a sound check when we popped in), and the town’s crosswalks that had been repainted to look like musical scales. It was lunch hour on a Friday in May, and the restaurants and streets were packed. The average age in Patchogue is eight years younger than the county average. It is one of the few towns in the area that voted for Hillary Clinton.
“It’s about putting people on the street, putting wallets on the streets,” Pontieri said. The mayor is a conservative Democrat and a former school administrator; I asked him if he had been inspired by Jane Jacobs, Richard Florida or other fashionable urban theorists. He shot me a what the hell are you talking about look; to him, what he was doing was just common sense.
“What I knew was that when I grew up you could look down the street and you would see people,” he said. “And that if you wanted to get young people in town, they want a place that is clean, that is new, where they don’t have to mow the lawn and they can take care of themselves. Everybody in these buildings,” he added, pointing out one, “is an elevator ride away from dinner.”
Other towns in Suffolk now look at how Patchogue is thriving and want to emulate it, even as residents howl about the possibility of outsiders coming in.
After the Lucero murder, Pontieri met with members of the local Latino community. He urged them to keep the noise down, to learn English, to not disrupt neighborhood norms. He visited Ecuador, where Lucero was from. At the big St. Patrick’s Day parade in Patchogue, Pontieri refused to march with Zeldin, fearing his support for Trump was sending the wrong message to residents. “I did not want the sense of this community to be that I agree with him.” Pontieri says. “We went through a lot in 2008. I am not going through that again. What explains the failure of communities around here? It is easy to blame the color of somebody’s skin. If I can blame somebody else, I have solved my problem.”
Pontieri now testifies regularly in other Suffolk towns where leaders want to bring in more housing, more growth, more vitality over the objection of residents who fear change, who fear what is meant by “new residents.” It is one of the great paradoxes of a place like Suffolk, a place with towns full of winners who feel like they are losers, who are well-equipped to meet the future, but who more and more don’t want to.
“I essentially grew up on Long Island,” Trump told a roundtable of local politicians, including Zeldin, on Wednesday in Bethpage. “All of the places that I know so well that you can’t walk outside. This used to be the place that you would leave your doors unlocked, you would leave your windows open always. We have gang members now that are so rough that people are afraid to go outside.” It was going to be OK, he reassured them. “The ICE guys,” he said, were rougher and tougher and meaner than even the meanest gangbanger.
“It’s unthinkable,” Trump said. “It is almost like an occupied territory where your children are afraid to go out and if they go out bad things happen.”