Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

What Three Million Immigrants Do

A college graduate from Beijing who studies hotel management and culinary art, Zhen Zhang moved to New York in 1993 with dreams of opening his own hotel. Although that idea never materialized, he now runs a successful travel agency in Flushing, Queens.

" New York is a city that is full of opportunities," Zhang said. "Here, as long as you are willing to work hard, you will have a better future. You run into language and cultural barriers but you learn to adapt."

Zhang is among the 3 million immigrants living in New York City. Like the majority of them, he works hard and pays taxes. Now his contribution to the society is reaffirmed by a study, titled "Working for a Better Life: A Profile of Immigrants in the New York State Economy." It concluded that immigrants contribute nearly one fourth of the economic output of New York State. Their contribution is even greater in New York City, where their share of wages is 37 percent of total earnings by residents.

" These numbers should wipe away any impression that immigrants are holding the New York economy back," said David Kallick, a senior fellow at the institute and the principal author of the study. "In fact, immigrants are a central component of New York’s economic growth."

The study, conducted over the past year, was released on November 26, less than two weeks after New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer dropped his controversial plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants that stirred up a national debate. It is prepared by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a private research organization, as part of a joint project on "The Truth about Immigrants" with the New York Immigrant Coalition.

" We just felt like there was such a deep misunderstanding about who immigrants were that the political discourse often got far afield from any factual basis of what’s really going on here," Kallick told the New York Times. "

" This report clearly proves that immigrants fuel growth and vitality in every economic sector and every geographic area in New York," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director or the New York Immigration Coalition. "For us to maximize immigrant contributions to the economy, we must stop treating immigrants like criminals and terrorists. Instead, we need to change our immigration law so that undocumented immigrants can come out of the shadows of the underground economy and future immigrant workers ca immigrate legally to fill jobs that our economy requires."

Breaking the Stereotypes

In New York City, foreign-born residents account for 37 percent of the population. The national average is 12 percent. These immigrants are not limited to the low-wage, low-skill work often associated with them. According to the study, in New York City, immigrants make up a quarter of all chief executives, half of accountants, a third of financial managers and four out of 10 architects. They account for half of the city's doctors and six out of 10 registered nurses. In addition, more than a third of college professors are immigrants and so are more than half of all computer programmers.

Steven Michaels, an immigrant from Greece and a former comptroller of a major financial firm, said about 20 percent of the employees in his former company are foreign-born and highly educated.

" Many of them earned their MBAs here and hold middle and upper management positions," said Michaels, currently an independent financial consultant. "Leaving their families and social circles to start over in a foreign country, they have to work hard in order to be successful. They absolutely make great contribution to the economy."

" Immigrants’ contribution to economic output in New York State is about the same as their share of the population," said James Parrott, chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute. "That’s because immigrants start businesses, invest in New York and work in jobs all across the economic spectrum – the same as other New Yorkers."

In the Labor Force

According to the study, about 28.5 percent of all immigrants live in families with an income of between $40,000 and $80,000. Immigrants tend to have incomes in this middle range, while native-born families tend to be more concentrated at the top and bottom of the income spectrum.

In addition, immigrants have a higher work force participation rate than other Americans. Sixty-four percent of immigrants are in the labor force, compared to 60 percent of New York City residents born in the United States. Immigrants work longer hours – slightly above one hour a week more than native-born workers. And they tend to have more workers in each family – 44 percent of immigrant families have two or more family members that work, compared to 28 percent of native-born families.

Illegal immigrants, the center of the furor over Spitzer’s former license plan, were also included in the study through collaboration with the Pew Hispanic Center and Urban Institute. Immigrants without proper documentation make up about 18 percent of all immigrants in New York City, totaling at 535,000. Among them, 374,000 people are in the work force, showing a labor participation rate as high as 70 percent.

Urban Revival

Immigrants have contributed to New York City’s rebirth over the last 25 years. Because of the fiscal crisis and population decline in the 1970s, New York City’s population dropped to a record-low 7 million in the 1980 Census. The city's population reached 8.2 million in 2005 and is projected to continue to grow, partly because of immigration.

Asian immigrants are the fastest-growing group, making up 23 percent of all immigrants. Blacks are 21 percent with many newcomers from the Caribbean and Africa. Whites account for 23 percent with a big influx of Eastern Europeans, while Hispanics are 31 percent. The top five countries of birth for immigrants are the Dominican Republic, China, Jamaica, Mexico and Guyana.

Beyond working, these immigrants contribute to the economic vitality of the city in other ways. For example, 34 percent of immigrants live in hoes they own, a rate close to that of their native-born counterparts.

Newcomers to the city have opened businesses across New York, particularly in its many ethnic enclaves. Immigrants own a variety of businesses -- grocery stores, nail salons, newsstands and restaurants, to name a few-- that create employment and generate tax revenue. In Flushing, Queens, where Chinese and Korean signs can be seen everywhere, the number of businesses grew 54.6 percent between 1994 and 2004. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where Spanish is the primary language, more than 500 new businesses were established during the same period of time.


More and more immigrants have some form of higher education, the study found. In 1980s, only about 30 percent have received some college education. That number grew to 52 percent in 2005. The study also found that immigrants from Asia have considerably higher college graduation rates than native-born residents, while groups from Latin America, Caribbean and Mexico, have considerably lower educational levels.

" No matter if it is low-skill or high-skill work, immigrants fill the positions that Americans refused to take or simply could not do," said Keju Ma, a Canadian citizen who works for Goldman Sachs in Manhattan. "They fill the gap. That is significant contribution to the American economy."

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A resident of Brooklyn, he is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.  





















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