FARMINGVILLE, N.Y. (AP) – This middle-class Long Island community an hour from New York City and 2,000 miles from the Mexican border has become an unlikely flashpoint in the national debate over illegal immigration, with Hispanics beaten, harassed and evicted in recent weeks.

For more than a decade, immigrants from Mexico or Central America have been drawn to Long Island by the prospect of jobs. Many stand on street corners in Farmingville, waiting for contractors, landscapers and others to offer them a day’s work at about $10 an hour. Then at night they go back to their illegally overcrowded single-family homes.

The immigrants, many of whom are believed to have entered the country illegally, have been a source of tension among longtime residents since at least the late 1990s, but things have gotten worse this summer – so bad that the head of the Mexican Consulate in New York City said Farmingville was “clearly a red zone after the Arizona border” in the abuse of immigrants.

In late June, two men were charged with a hate crime for allegedly berating a Mexican woman and her husband as the couple backed their van out of a parking lot. Within weeks, two more suspects were arrested and accused of yelling racial epithets and throwing a beer bottle at a Hispanic day laborer.

That same day, four people demonstrating at a 7-Eleven in support of day laborers were arrested when they surrounded an anti-immigration protester’s car and refused to let him out.

Police are also investigating an attack in nearby Patchogue on a 61-year-old Ecuadorean man. He was beaten by three men who supposedly asked if he had a green card.

The tension was ratcheted up in mid-June, when officials in the town of Brookhaven, which includes Farmingville, and Suffolk County police began evicting men from overcrowded houses, citing health and safety violations. Dozens of people were jammed into the tiny one-family homes.

So far, at least six houses have been shut by authorities – including three last Friday – leaving more than 100 men homeless, advocates said.

Advocates claimed the immigrants have been thrown into the streets without warning. One advocate called it “ethnic cleansing.”

“Many local officials have punted, saying this is a federal issue and we can’t do anything about it. Well, there are some things you can do,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy responded. “Crack down on those contractors, crack down on illegal housing and create a better relationship with immigration officials.”

Levy complained that it is the Mexican government’s “failed policies, both economically and otherwise, that have been pushing millions of his residents over the border for a better life in America.”

Arturo Sarukhan, head of the Mexican Consulate in New York City, agreed that Mexico needs to solve its economic problems so that its citizens do not leave for a better life in America. But he said officials on Long Island must realize that the day laborers are here to stay and “there is a need to work together.”

“At the end of the day, they may or may not like it, but it is the reality,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Town of Brookhaven estimated there are 150 houses, each with dozens of suspected illegal workers, in Farmingville, though some landlords have pre-emptively evicted some tenants for fear of trouble with the law.

“If they’re going to throw anybody out of an apartment, they have to give them time,” said Carlos Tenorio, a 26-year-old day laborer from Mexico City who has been in Farmingville for about nine months. “These people are not the cause of the problem.”

Farmingville saw immigration-related violence a few years ago. In 2000, two Mexican men were beaten by two locals who promised them work. On the Fourth of July 2003, a Mexican family barely escaped with their lives after teens set their house ablaze by shooting fireworks through a window. But tensions appeared to ease after three of the assailants were sent to prison – two of them for 25 years.

Residents are largely cheering the crackdown on immigrants.

“I think they are doing a terrific job,” said Terry Sherwood, who complained that residents in the jammed houses often drink late into the night and urinate and defecate on lawns and backyards. “I don’t care who they are, what color they are. I don’t care where they come from. Why should people have to live this way?”

Lisa Marino placed a Mexican flag on her front lawn in solidarity with the workers but also applauded efforts by officials to curb illegal housing.

“There’s a lack of assimilation,” she said of the workers. “You don’t leave garbage out, you don’t whistle at neighbors. They need to understand that, but by keeping them marginalized, they don’t learn that.”

Nadia Marin-Molina, an advocate for the day laborers, understands the concerns expressed by neighbors, but insisted “it’s a two-way street.”

“Some of these same people who are complaining are the people who benefit from the work these guys do,” she said. “Because every house has landscaping done, or has to have some job done on their roof, or some painting done.”

AP-ES-08-04-05 2304EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.