Carlos Sandoval was living on Long Island, New York, in 2000 when he began noticing an increase in Latino immigrants in the Manhattan bedroom communities that dot the island.
His initial reaction was one of nostalgia.
A sixth-generation American of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, Sandoval grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and although his father had other work they occasionally hired themselves out to do yard work for a little extra money.
“I saw people arriving with pick up trucks and lawnmowers in the back like we used to do,” Sandoval said.
But then hate filled editorials began appearing in the local newspapers. Residents were referring to the influx of immigrants as “an invasion of locusts.” In September 2001, two Mexican day laborers were beaten and stabbed nearly to death in what was deemed a hate crime.
Sandoval’s nostalgia turned to shock.
“This wasn’t the southwest along the border. This was the new millennium in the North Eastern United States,” Sandoval said. “When I started seeing a welcome reception turning to hostility that was what shocked me, seeing that rather sudden transition.”
Sandoval, a lawyer and writer who had worked on immigration and refugee affairs as a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, felt he need to document what was going on. He founded Camino Bluff Productions and along with Catherine Tambini produced and directed the 2004 Sundance award-winning documentary “Farmingville” _ named after the Long Island city where the immigration issue had flared into a hate crime.
“I didn’t realize (at the time) what was going on reflected what was going on across America,” Sandoval said. “What surprised me was the way the story became national so quickly.”
Now, the issue of illegal immigration is a staple of American political discourse, along with the economy or health care. It is an issue that can escalate quickly into a heated debate.
While there was plenty of hate-fueled reaction to the influx of day-laborers in Farmingville, most of the residents were still being fairly reasonable, Sandoval said. He thought if he took the time to ask those who were shouting the loudest on either side what was bothering them that it would stimulate a healthier dialogue.
“That if people would feel that they were being heard that they would open themselves up to hear the others,” he said. “I think my greatest disappointment is that those things have gotten more polarized in the time since.”
But, Sandoval says, there were small glimmers of hope.
While filming, a resident named Louise approached Tambini fed up with how homes in her neighborhood were becoming run-down with sometimes dozens of immigrants living in one single-family home. Rents were cheaper in Farmingville and several landlords were happy to capitalize on the influx by crowding a lot of people into one house.
Since the documentary, Louise has organized a community clean-up. Rather than working for or against the immigrants she invited everyone to help solve one of the community’s problems, he said.
“Taking that positive step, doing something as simple as organizing a cleanup day and making it about the community, that can be a bridge builder,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval knows that there are no easy answers when it comes to immigration. He just hopes by telling the stories of those involved he can humanize the debate.
“These are human beings. They are seeking out a better life,” Sandoval said. “It’s why our grandparents and great-grandparents came over. I think that trying to find that commonality and trying to get past the labels and understand the humanity, it takes that kind of understanding.”