Gotham Gazette

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A Unique Time And Place

Nancy Foner, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York, met recently with the Gotham Gazette Reading NYC Book Club to discuss her book, In A New Land: A Comparative View of Immigration -- and the distinctive experience of immigrants in New York. The following is an edited transcript:


GOTHAM GAZETTE: Let's start with the national debate, which at times has been quite nasty. In New York though, it seems to have been less nasty. Everyone from the mayor on down seems to be on the same side of the fence. Is that your view, and if so, why is that?

NANCY FONER: It is my view. I don't want to paint a picture of New York as an immigrant's paradise, because I think that's too strong. However, compared to other places in the nation it is a very immigrant friendly place.

Obviously one reason is New York's immigrant history. Almost everybody in New York is close to their immigrant roots. If someone is not an immigrant, they're the child of an immigrant, or a grandchild of an immigrant – like myself – or a great-grandchild of an immigrant.

Something else that is distinctive about New York in comparison to places where there is a lot of anti-immigrant feeling is that New York has a very diverse mix of immigrants, and every single racial group in New York has a significant proportion of immigrants.

New York is amazing. There must be at least one person from every country in the world. If you look at the top three groups in 2000 – Dominicans, Chinese, and Jamaicans – together they were a little under 30 percent of immigrants. No other group was over five percent. That's pretty amazing – it's so diverse.

A third of immigrants in New York are from Latin America, including Dominicans. A quarter of the immigrants in New York are West Indians or Africans. A fifth are Asians. We also have large numbers of Europeans in the top groups. If you put together all the people from the former Soviet Union, they are one of the very top groups, but it's not done that way any more. Still, Russians, Ukrainians, and Poles, all three of those groups are in the top fifteen. So we have huge numbers from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the West Indies. It is what makes New York really stand out.

New York also gets a pretty good skill mix. There is about an equal mix of high skilled and low skilled immigrants. About a quarter of adult immigrants in New York have a college degree or more.

Then we get to the issue of the undocumented, which is in the news everywhere now. A widely quoted figure is that there are half a million undocumented immigrants in New York City. Well, that is an estimate; we don't really know. That is one out of six. Five out of six are not undocumented, which means that the vast majority of immigrants in New York are legal. [The rate of undocumented immigrants] is much higher in California and the Southwest.

If you look at the political leaders in New York, there is a closeness to their immigrant roots, and a sensitivity to immigrants. Also there's a political calculus involved. I think it would be political suicide for any aspiring political candidate in New York to take a stand that would be antagonistic to immigrants. Thirty-six percent of the city's population is foreign-born. If you put together the children of immigrants and immigrants, we're talking about over fifty percent of the population. Not all of these immigrants are citizens and can vote, but their American-born children are citizens, and increasing numbers of immigrants are naturalizing.

There is now dispersal to places that haven't seen immigrants for over 100 or 150 years. All of a sudden these places are getting an inflow of largely Mexican immigrants, and that has been a jolt.

Just to mention one other factor that is making illegal immigration such a big issue right now. Over the past decade there has been a dispersal of immigrants away from gateway cities. New York still has nine percent of the country's immigrants. A fifth of the nation's immigrants live in Los Angeles County and New York City; if you look at the metro areas, New York and Los Angeles have a third of the country's immigrants. We're still getting large numbers of immigrants moving to the major gateways. But what is also happening is dispersal to places that haven't seen immigrants for over 100 or 150 years: small towns in the Midwest, and many places in the South. All of a sudden these places are getting an inflow of largely Mexican immigrants, and that has been a jolt.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: How would what’s being discussed on the national scale affect New Yorkers?

NANCY FONER: It will affect New York’s undocumented immigrants in terms of the enforcement measures and of course if pathways are opened to legalization, although we don’t really know yet, since the law hasn’t been passed. The other issue is whether all of this enforcement is going to really stop the flow of undocumented immigrants?

PAUL COGLEY: I was amazed by the amount of people who were marching down Broadway in support of immigrants. It was truly an incredible showing. What do you think of that, and what do you think they were trying to tell New York by getting together in such numbers?

NANCY FONER: I don't know how much they were trying to tell New York. I think they were trying to tell the US government – the Senate and the House – that they wanted legislation that would help undocumented immigrants and provide a pathway to legalization. There was a national movement to get everybody out, and to make it clear to Congress to vote a certain way.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: One of the things you mentioned about New York in your book is that while it is an exception in many ways – and people who live in New York obviously like to think of themselves as an exception to everything else that happens in the country – there are other ways in which it’s not. What does New York have in common with other places in the country?

NANCY FONER: The issue of race and the legacy of slavery is one. I have studied Jamaicans in England and I studied Jamaicans in New York. And of course Jamaicans are predominantly people of African ancestry. And they certainly point out that New York is not a racial paradise or a paradise for immigrants. Coming to New York for West Indians of African ancestry is really very difficult in terms of issues of race. They experience a kind of prejudice here that they did not experience in their home country.

Coming to New York for West Indians of African ancestry is really very difficult in terms of issues of race. They experience a kind of prejudice here that they did not experience in their home country.

And I think a fact that many New Yorkers are really not so aware of is the remarkably high rates of residential segregation between whites and blacks. Sociologists who do studies [use an index where] the least residential segregation [between two groups] is zero and total segregation is 100. The figure for West Indians and non-Hispanic whites is 82. That is the same as for African Americans and whites. You only have to go to neighborhoods that are heavily West Indian in New York to see this.

BOOK CLUB MEMBER: Isn’t part of the segregation a process of how difficult the real estate market is in the city? Most people, no matter what their color, find that it’s very difficult to find a place to live if you don’t have a contact. And I think because of that, a lot of new immigrants move in with somebody they already know and often live often illegally initially.

NANCY FONER: I think there are two things going on in terms of where people live. One is choice, and you’re right. When immigrants come here, they want to live in a neighborhood with people they know, where there are familiar institutions, with the food they like, with the church they want to go to, where they feel comfortable. So yes, choice is involved, and that’s partly why you get these ethnic communities developing.

But there are also two constraints. One is money. Many immigrants would like to live on Park Avenue if they could, but they can’t obviously. They don’t have the money so that limits them to certain neighborhoods.

The other is race. We see this in terms of West Indians. You know they move into a neighborhood, East Flatbush is a prime example, or Canarsie. As soon as a neighborhood begins to have a substantial number of blacks, whites begin to leave, no new whites move in, and other blacks, both African American and West Indian, find the neighborhood more comfortable, so more of them move in. West Indians, interestingly, have been among the pioneers in moving into white neighborhoods. But they quickly find that the neighborhood begins to turn and become blacker.

JOAN DECAMP: But when immigrants become Americans – maybe the second generation – they're out of Brooklyn, they're out of Queens. They move to an American kind of suburb.

NANCY FONER: For many that will be true.

One of the interesting things we have now is that many immigrants are going straight to the suburbs. This includes many who are poor, and the reception is often not so friendly.

BOOK CLUB MEMBER II: There’s a myth of white racism. Everything you're talking about is more the result of socio-economic factors; people always feel more comfortable within their own culture. It has nothing to do with race, but it always gets blamed on white racism. There's no reality to it in this day and age, especially in New York. Yet white scholars seem to perpetuate this myth of white racism as an explanation of all the problems that these different groups have.

GABRIEL THOMPSON: You must be lucky to not ever meet any racists.

BOOK CLUB MEMBER II: Well, I don't. Especially in this day and age in New York it's such a rare thing.

GABRIEL THOMPSON: You can't call it a myth. It exists.

BOOK CLUB MEMBER: There will always be incidents, but the institutionalization of it is a myth.

NANCY FONER: It would be nice if it was a myth, but unfortunately it is not a myth. Obviously there are various factors going into residential patterns, but the fact is that we do live in a society where if people who are black seek to live in neighborhoods that are white, they're often not even shown homes there.

JOAN DECAMP: Or the other way around. If you're a white person and you want to live in St. Albans, you're not welcome.

NANCY FONER: One of the interesting things that is emerging from this discussion is that there's more tension and conflict being engendered by immigrants moving into New York neighborhoods than is often thought, and that there is a resentment of immigrants moving into some neighborhoods.


BOB ZANE: You mentioned the strong prejudice in certain areas against the Jamaicans and West Indians. Do you find more people against them than against the Latinos, or the Jews who came to the Lower East Side, the Chinese people in Chinatown, the Irish people in Hell's Kitchen, the black people in Harlem?

It seems to me that the people coming today have it better because there are all these laws passed for more equality, and the people who are coming are more educated – the Jamaicans, many of them are educated in an English type system. Wouldn't they have it easier than the people who came before and couldn't speak English?

NANCY FONER: The migration 100 years ago to New York was Jewish and Italian, and there was tremendous prejudice against them. They were thought of as racially inferior -- as belonging to inferior white races. There was tremendous open discrimination against them.

Eventually those groups did become fully part of the mainstream and thought of as unquestionably white, and not as inferior white races or what some historians call "in-between peoples."

Today many of the groups that come in are thought of as not white, and the question often raised is will they too over time become accepted the same way that Jews and Italians were. And the question is, will this happen and how will this happen? Intermarriage, we know, is one of the engines of change. There’s a lot of intermarriage, particularly between Latinos and whites, and Asians and whites. Much less between African Americans (and people of African ancestry) and whites; those rates are still very low.

One scenario that is presented is that the category "white" will expand the way it did in the past in order to encompass Jews and Italians

So one scenario that is presented is that the category "white" will expand the way it did in the past in order to encompass Jews and Italians so that you’ll have people who are considered non-Hispanic whites now, along with many successful Asians, light skinned Latinos, and multiracial, light skinned children.

Another scenario, and I’d say many social scientists feel this may happen, is a shift to a black/not black division. You’ll have Asians, Latinos, whites in one category and people of African ancestry in another. Those predictions are based on realities of black-white residential segregation, which we know is very high, and the relatively low rates of intermarriage between blacks and whites.

Yet a third scenario foresees a kind of Latin American system developing where what matters most is class, not color. It won’t matter so much what you look like in terms of physical features; it will be more important what your economic status is.

Which one will emerge we don’t know, but I think one of the things that is exciting about New York right now, or actually the United States, is that we are living through a period of change. Nobody could have imagined if you had said to people in 1900 that Jews would be members of the New York Yacht Club and all the fancy clubs and attend all the elite schools, and that they would be among the privileged. People wouldn’t have imagined that that could ever have happened. So who knows what the future will bring?

GOTHAM GAZETTE: You mentioned that when Jews and Italians came in the early 20th century, they were thought of as inferior. Then there was a period over which they “became white”. How did that happen?

NANCY FONER: Partly it was assimilation – the children being born in America and speaking English and learning American ways and doing better economically. That wasn’t inevitable: the Japanese on the West Coast did better economically, but they weren’t considered white. I think intermarriage was certainly another factor. Also, with the Holocaust, anti-Semitism certainly became less respectable. There was a change of views of race in the scientific world, too.

Another factor was the struggles by the groups themselves to eliminate barriers that excluded them. Jews in particular fought hard to get anti-discrimination laws passed.

Then there was a huge African American migration from the South. When the Jews and Italians were coming, say, in 1910, only two percent of New Yorkers were African American. But after World War I there began a large migration of Southern blacks. And so by the 1930s and 1940s when the children of the immigrants were climbing the economic ladder, the racial order of New York was also changing to one more focused on color. One dynamic of establishing themselves as fully white, and historians have written about this, was distancing themselves from African Americans.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Do barriers exist for today’s nonwhite immigrants that did not exist then? Or are they in a better position?

NANCY FONER: Some are in a better position. Many immigrants who are coming today are very highly educated, and many of them come speaking English. So, actually many of them are moving ahead faster than happened in the past. Some are even moving right into elite institutions.

Of course Asians are the prime example. They have a higher proportion of college graduates than non-Hispanic whites in this country. Many Asian immigrants are very highly educated and it’s not surprising that their children are doing astoundingly well. And so that’s moving them ahead faster, I think.

Also, there was enormous prejudice in this country in the past against Asians. There were specific laws to keep them out, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Law in 1882. They were aliens ineligible for citizenship. Of course during World War II, the Japanese were rounded up and put in internment camps. There was huge prejudice against Asians in New York. I grew up in Queens in the 1950s. When a Chinese family tried to move in around the corner from me, there were petitions to keep them out.

That would not have happened today. Asians have become a model minority: “almost white.” They’re not white, but successful Asians I think generally move fairly easily in a white world. And we’ve seen that from intermarriages, which are common. It doesn’t mean that there still isn’t prejudice against Asians, because there is, but they really have made enormous strides. And that is very different from 100 years ago.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: This is something it seems you now hear three times a day: that the last big wave of immigrants came legally, assimilated easily, quickly got jobs and became “Respectable Americans.” How much of that is overstated nostalgia?

NANCY FONER: I get this all the time: “Oh, but then they all spoke English and today they don’t speak English.” Well, immigrants in the past -- and here we’re talking about immigrants, not their American-born children -- didn’t always learn English so well. It was their children who did, just as children today are learning English.

There is study after study that shows that virtually all of the children of immigrants born in the US know English. That doesn’t mean they don’t also know their home-country language, particularly the children of Latino and Hispanic immigrants. Many of them are bilingual. But by the third generation, more than 75 percent of Mexicans are English dominant. So there is a move to English just as there was in the past.

In terms of assimilation, the children are American. They are becoming a different type of American than the second generation in the past, partly because America is different. One difference from the past, and this is raised a lot, is that in the mid-1920s, after restrictive legislation, immigration from eastern and southern Europe was severely curtailed, so you didn’t have new immigrants coming into the community. Today that’s quite different. You have constant inflows of new immigrants moving into existing communities. First of all, that gives these communities a different flavor. It also may mean that people hold onto aspects of home country cultures for longer than in the past.

JOAN DECAMP: My understanding though is that in past immigrations, as much as 50 percent of the population returned, and didn't make it here.

NANCY FONER: In New York 100 years ago, we're mostly talking about Jews and Italians. The Jews pretty much came to stay. They were fleeing oppression, pogroms, anti-Semitism in Europe, and they came here, and they weren't going back.

Italians were birds of passage. For every ten Italians who came, five returned. Some came back again, but some didn't. Among all immigrant groups in the US, there was a much higher rate of return than there is today. In fact, that return rate inflamed public opinion. There was concern that immigrants were looting America, that they weren't setting their roots here. They were sending their money back, they were going back, and they weren't becoming American.

Illegal immigration was not an issue 100 years ago for European immigrants, and that's simply because there were no immigration quotas [and] no visas needed.

Let me say one thing about the undocumented. Illegal immigration was not an issue 100 years ago for European immigrants, and that's simply because there were no immigration quotas, no visas needed, and really no such thing as illegal immigration among Europeans. After legislation passed at the turn of the century, if you didn't get through Ellis Island, the steam ship companies had to pay your passage back. They had a big interest in making sure that those who got on the boat were healthy and would pass inspection. Most people got through Ellis Island. That is something people often say: well, my relatives came and they weren't illegal. There wasn't such thing; it's a non-comparison.


GABRIEL THOMPSON: I was wondering how kids of immigrants are faring today in the city, as opposed to kids of immigrants a generation ago.

NANCY FONER: It's a good question, and a hard question to answer in a way, because there are a number of myths. Most of them pertain to the Jews: they came here, and their kids went to Harvard. Well, it took a little longer than that. It didn't happen right away.

Partly it's the nature of the education system. When Jews and Italians came here 100 years ago, going to high school was very unusual; graduating was even more unusual. There were two city colleges that were free, and a tiny number of students went there. You didn't really need a lot of education to get ahead, and there were very high dropout rates, particularly among Italians.

The second generation did a little better, and the third generation did even better. It took a while.

Today, how are the children of immigrants doing in the schools? Well, it varies by group. The children who have parents who come from middle class backgrounds, not surprisingly, do better than those whose parents have less than a high school education. Social scientists are just beginning to study how children of immigrants are doing. Studies are showing that children of immigrants generally do better than their parents in terms of education and occupation.

GABRIEL THOMPSON: The Mexicans I work with, a lot of their kids that grew up here, almost all of them dropped out of high school. There's a lot of tension among parents that went from third grade right into the fields that think their kids are lazy for not going to school. But their schools are awful.

NANCY FONER: Nationally, the children of Mexican immigrants have a very high dropout rate from high school. First let me say that a significant minority is going to college, even though their college completion rate is low. So a substantial fraction is prepared to go into white-collar jobs. They do have a higher high school dropout rate than native blacks or whites. What's interesting, and this is nationally, is that second-generation Mexican high school dropouts have lower incarceration rates than native blacks, and higher labor force participation rates.

For the Mexicans in New York, it's a little early to tell how their children are doing, because they've just started coming in large numbers in the 1990s.


JERRY SILVER: What are you thinking of for your next book?

NANCY FONER: My next project -- the project that I’m actually working on -- is comparing immigration in the U.S. and Europe. It’s interesting how until recently, immigration wasn’t such a contentious topic in this country. And when it is a topic of debate here it’s focused very much on undocumented immigration. This discussion hasn’t been about cutting back the number of legal immigrants. In Europe, immigration is a tremendously contentious topic and the issue is focused around integration and around Muslims. And of course one thing about the United States …is that most immigrants who come to the United States are Christian. Religion is not as much an issue here when it comes to immigrants whereas in Europe, the issue, the really hot button issue, is the fact that immigrants coming in are heavily Muslim and there’s a tremendous amount of antipathy to their religion and their cultural practices.

When immigration is a topic of debate in the United States it’s focused very much on undocumented immigration. This discussion hasn’t been about cutting back the number of legal immigrants.

Among the second generation, given the nature of European economies, which are more highly regulated than the American economy, there is a problem of jobs. There is high unemployment among the second generation as you all read about in stories about the riots in France. And, a big problem for the second generation in Europe is the inability to get work. In the United States, the second generation has high levels of participating in the labor force. They’re working. Unfortunately, unlike in Europe, they don’t get national health care insurance, they don’t get generous government housing assistance, the welfare state is pretty minimal here.

So there are a whole set of different issues that I'm beginning to look at.


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