January 26, 2005

Hispanic Immigrants Shift Makeup of N.Y.

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Over the past few years in the U.S. there has been a huge increase in the Hispanic population, especially Mexican immigrants.

“The change started to become obvious when supermarkets started having a very large aisle dedicated to Hispanic foods,” Pilar Parra, research associate, Division of Nutritional Sciences, said.

Prof. Max Pfeffer, development sociology, and Parra, just released the first part of four-year study: “Integrating the Needs of Immigrant Workers and Rural Communities.” The study was funded by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Fund for Rural America.

The researchers chose to focus on five communities in New York state. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, in these communities, the Hispanic population increased by 69.9 percent, the African-American population increased by 29.6 percent and the white population decreased by 2.3 percent.

“We’re trying to find out who they are, and how these new people integrate into society,” said Pfeffer.

The researchers worked with other organizations, such as Rural Opportunities, Inc. and had focus group interviews of former farmworkers and current farmworkers. Using feedback from these sessions, they developed a questionnaire and gave it to about 600 former farmworkers, 600 current farmworkers and 1200 non-migrant farmworkers. Pfeffer and Parra were connected with Rural Opportunities, Inc. by the Cornell Migrant Program.

“It’s a great opportunity because there is really very little information gathered on farmworkers in New York state; it’s data that’s current and that you can’t get anywhere else,” said Velma Smith, New York Director of Rural Opportunities, Inc.

Parra said, “The main question is, are these new immigrants considered an asset or a burden.”

The study reported very little interaction or friendships between different ethnic groups. In general, the non-immigrants weren’t opposed to the immigrants being there; they were mostly ambivalent.

Some people were not sure if there even were new immigrants because they never saw them. “The U.S. is becoming more and more diverse even in rural places where we wouldn’t normally think of diversity, not just in urban centers,” said Pfeffer.

According to Parra, there used to be more circular migration but this decreased significantly because of economic hardships in Mexico, changes in immigration policies, border crossings becoming harder, more expensive and more dangerous. She said that about 65-80 percent of agricultural workers are undocumented, but if they were forced to leave, there would be a crisis because no one would be left to harvest.

In the study, current, foreign-born farmworkers identified their major needs from most important to least as: learning English, and having access to health care, education/training, housing, places to socialize and opportunities to learn U.S. culture. Some reasons why language was found to be so vital are that it is needed for taking the bus, shopping, education and training, among other things. Many current farmworkers reported relying on others for going shopping, cashing checks, going to doctors or clinics and opening a bank account. The majority of the current farmworkers are undocumented and are unable to get a driver’s license or open a bank account.

The researchers said that they were looking to discover important issues for community discussion as opposed to providing answers to communities. Some issues include how to teach English as a second language and identifying health service and housing needs. Parra said that the research would be useful for working with other agencies to develop educational materials as well as for future studies.

Archived article by VANESSA HOFFMAN
Sun Staff Writer