Immigrants
Internet resources for what you need to know about NYC Immigrants
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
Immigrants are foreign-born people and their families who enter the United States and settle. This is a catch-all phrase that usually includes everybody from the U.S-born children of foreigners to naturalized citizens to the undocumented.
The Context
New York owes much of its growth and character to its traditional role as the point of entry and settlement for immigrants from all over the world. The city may now be experiencing the largest wave of immigration in its history, with immigrants and their children making up to as much as 60 percent of the city's population. Most of today's immigrants come from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the former Soviet Union and are, for the most part, younger and darker than immigrants from the past. While the federal government sets overall immigration policy, state and local policy directly affects immigrants on a wide range of issues, from education to health care to political representation.
The Reporter
Dulce Reyes Bonilla is a Dominican-born immigrant rights activist formerly on the staff of the New York Immigration Coalition.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Immigration.

By James Wong

Chinatown Tries to Recover

Outside of Ground Zero, no other neighborhood in New York City was as adversely affected by the tragic events of 9/11 as Chinatown. In the first two weeks after the attack, the entire community was shut down. Frozen zones, street closures, and police barricades paralyzed the neighborhood, forcing countless businesses to remain closed and keeping over 20,000 workers home.

While most of the focus of the rebuilding effort, understandably, has centered around Ground Zero and the west side of lower Manhattan, the needs of Chinatown and its roughly 100,000 residents have been largely overlooked.

Chinatown, New York's oldest and largest ethnic Enclave, has always been an insular community. Its residents work in the very same neighborhood they live. Its vast array of shops and services provide those in the community with all they need without ever having to leave the neighborhood or even speak English. Yet these very same factors that helped foster its growth, now threaten its livelihood.

Chinatown's largest employers are the garment industry, almost exclusively made up of immigrant women, and the restaurant business. Both of these industries operate on very small profit margins and pay low wages, making even a small drop in business problematic. The garment industry is so integral to Chinatown, that there's an old saying that in every Chinese immigrant family, someone works in the garment industry. "For new immigrants it is a major source of employment" says May Chen, Vice President of UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, Local 23-25, who represents many of the unemployed.

But as insular as it is, many of Chinatown's restaurants and shops depend heavily on tourism to keep them in business. The police barricades that were erected meant that most of their customers could not patronize their shops. To compound matters, most of downtown was without telephone service for weeks, meaning that people could not even call to find out if places were open or to order take-out.

The frozen zones presented logistical problems for the garment industry as well. While not dependent on tourism, delivery trucks were unable to drop off the fabrics needed to sew the clothing, and could not pick up finished clothing. But according to Chen, the bigger problem was that it was not until after 9/11 that the country publicly acknowledged that it was in a recession, something that UNITE was already well aware of. Public talk then led to the cancellation of thousands of orders from retail stores afraid of having unsold items sit on their shelves. The end of the year is normally slow in the garment industry, but things were many times worse this year. Chen said that at its worst, "around 2,000 garment workers were collecting unemployment insurance, and another 2-3000 were doing work sharing, working only 3 days a week," thereby making them unable to qualify for unemployment insurance, but also still keeping them on the union health plan, an issue UNITE plans to raise in order to foment a public-private partnership with New York state to get money to help with health care benefits.

But exact data has been hard to come by. To that end, the Asian American Federation of New York, a non-profit umbrella organization of 36 Asian American health and human service agencies is undertaking an ambitious study to document the short and long-term economic impact on both business and labor in Chinatown as a result of 9/11. Relief agencies have agreed to share their data with them and the report is due out in June, with preliminary findings released in the end of March.

Dr. Shao-Chee Sim, director of research at the foundation, says that while it is too early for him to speculate on the results of the report, he did stress the difficulty that many establishments have had in securing financial help. Their website states that "only $14 million in loans have been given out to small businesses in Chinatown," almost all south of canal street, out of a total of $280 million. One of the major reasons behind this is the near total reliance of the Chinatown economy on cash. "The nature of the community is that they don't have a strong credit history," he said. For these very same reasons, getting an accurate picture of just what the effects are will be hard to come by.

All of the government relief up to this point, and most private organizations, restricted their disaster assistance to businesses south of Canal St. With over two thirds of the garment factories located north of Canal St., most were out of luck.

But Chen, from UNITE, points out that many factory owners wanted grants instead of loans because they were not sure how viable their businesses would be with outside assistance. "They didn't want to be stuck with 10 years of paying back loans, having put up their own property for collateral," if their businesses failed, she said. The union is now working with certain entities that will give some businesses several months of wage supplements just for their payroll in order to allow the businesses to pay for overhead.

The U.S. Department of Labor, recently announced it is giving out $1 million in grant money to all of Chinatown for immediate relief. The effort is being coordinated by three Chinese organizations, and UNITE is working with them to provide job training for those who have permanently lost their jobs.

While it appears that garment work is slowly starting to come back, thanks in large part to the "Proudly Made in NY" apparel campaign launched by major clothing companies, retailers, unions and NY Senators Charles Schumer and Hilary Clinton, in response to the factory closures and layoffs, there is worry about the future of Chinatown.

As garment factories and other businesses shut their gates for the last time, many community leaders worry that these closings will forever change the neighborhood, displacing longtime residents and businesses.

Even before 9/11, Brooklyn's Sunset Park and Flushing, Queens were beginning to attract more Asian immigrants and businesses with their cheaper rents and larger spaces. Additionally, there are many outside pressures being exerted on Chinatown for the highly coveted real estate. Hyun Lee, program director of the Chinatown Justice Project of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, recently told the Village Voice that as New York tries "to position itself as a global financial capital", there is an influx of mostly young, white professionals moving here forcing many long-time residents forced out. "So what that means for low-income tenants and also places like garment factories is that there is tremendous pressure in terms of evictions and harassment from landlords."

May Chen thinks the attention Chinatown has received since 9/11 has been positive in terms of bringing different groups and resources together to help the community. Still, she adds, "I hope [New York's] Chinatown doesn't turn into a tourist trap like other city's [Chinatowns]. New York has a unique Chinatown of both tourism and a real residential community with lots of substantive aspects to it in such diverse areas as the arts and culture."


Dulce's Five Favorite Sites For Beginners:

  • Immigration and Naturalization Service, the federal agency (within the United States Department of Justice) that provides services to immigrants (answering questions, processing applications for visas and for citizenship, etc.) and at the same time enforces the nation's immigration laws. INS also has a New York City district office and the New York Asylum Office
  • The New York City Mayor's Office Of Immigrant Affairs and Language Services, assists immigrants in a range of services and information. Here you can link to information about, for example, the New York Police Department New Immigrant Unit, where specially trained police officers conduct sensitivity training in the precincts and at the police academy, lecture at meetings of immigrant groups and work with the ethnic media. (212) 374-5112
  • Citizenship NYC, a city program, assists immigrant recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and federal food stamps to become citizens. (888) 374-5100
  • New York Immigration Hotline - open 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM Monday through Friday and providing free and confidential information in 15 languages (Arabic, Bengali, French, Haitian-Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Polish, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, and Urdu) about everything from immigration law to employment discrimination to health referrals to a list of non-profit agencies that assist immigrants. (718) 899-4000
  • National Immigration Forum, a national pro-immigration advocacy group, with a rundown of facts about immigration, current issues, useful links.
  • Genealogical Resources in the New York Metropolitan Area, published by The Jewish Genealogical Society, for those wishing to do research on their immigrant ancestors.


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