Median household income: $80,952
Unemployment rate: 3.8 percent
Median home price: $470,000
Behind the counter of Nick's Place in Babylon, N.Y., Lilly Donlon waits for the start of the after-work rush as Manhattan commuters head home to the suburbs of Long Island. Donlon's selling the odd lottery ticket and serving up spicy chicken and rice. She says she's worried about the economy and her business, which is experiencing a post-holiday slump, but hopes the situation will improve as the year goes on.
Donlon, a 15-year resident of Long Island, is from Medellín, Colombia, and fairly representative of the impact immigration has on the area's economy. She came to America with some marketable skills, is married to a native Long Islander, and has taken an entrepreneurial path—all trends present in many New York immigrants' lives, according to a recent study by the Fiscal Policy Institute. It estimates that immigrants like Donlon added $229 billion to the state economy in 2006, more than 22 percent of New York's economic output.
In downstate suburbs like here in Suffolk County, where immigrants make up 18 percent of residents, almost a third of families include at least one foreign-born adult. Median incomes for such families top $71,000. Donlon says immigration benefits the area and is proud of her success. "My customers come here, and they're construction, plumbing, landscaping guys. They say immigrants are the hardest-working employees," she says.
Yet Suffolk County's popular county executive, Steve Levy, has made national headlines by opposing illegal immigration. Last year, an antiloitering bill allegedly aimed at day laborers was defeated. More recently, authorities have aggressively targeted building code violations by landlords, a move critics say is designed to harass immigrants. And some contend that low-skilled illegal immigrants cost more in government services than the economic benefits they provide.
Still, when it comes to election-year issues, the economy appears to be trumping the ongoing immigration debate. In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 26 percent of respondents said "job creation and economic growth" was their top concern versus 10 percent who said "illegal immigration." Back at Nick's, Lilly Donlon says her business is feeling the impact of slower consumer spending as customers fret over the possibility of recession. Her husband, Joe, says customers who used to buy sandwiches for lunch now opt for just coffee and a paper: "Everybody's concerned. Nobody's pay is going up, and people are getting laid off. We need something to stimulate the economy. The mortgage thing was a real hit."
Mark Malsky, a Babylon real estate agent, acknowledges the housing market has slowed but calls buyer activity "steady." Suffolk County home prices are down about 7 percent since July.
John Iorio, co-owner of Bagelicious, a small chain of local bagel shops, notes slower sales while costs rise for flour and fuel. He's had to raise bagel prices from 70 cent to 80 cents. The same goes for coffee, as wholesalers have passed on higher transportation costs to retailers. The Donlons, Malsky, and Iorio all say they're waiting for signs the economy is improving. "You always have to hope things will come back," Lilly Donlon says. "But it's tough."