Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Undocumented Immigrants

New York City certainly has a lot at stake in the current debate in Congress over the most significant change in immigration policy in decades. More than a third of all New Yorkers are foreign-born. In the year 2000, New York was home to some 2.8 million immigrants, which is more than nine percent of all immigrants in the United States.

But if neither the pro-immigrant demonstrations nor the anti-immigrant rhetoric has ratcheted up here the way it has elsewhere in the country, there are solid reasons for this. The situation is very different in New York City than it is in California and the Southwest.

One difference is that the countries of origin in New York City are far more diverse than in other centers of immigration, as I wrote for this page in an article in 2002, "City of the Foreign Born." In Los Angeles, Mexicans account for almost 85 percent of the foreign born. No group in New York City is greater than 13 percent. So the protests in Los Angeles are largely that of one group. "The mobilization in New York City has been slower to develop," El Diario conceded recently. "The immigrant community here is incredibly diverse and, some say, harder to organize."

But the major difference may well be size and visibility of the undocumented. As of 2005, there are estimated to be 652,000 immigrants living illegally in New York City, which constitutes only about six percent of all of the undocumented in the United States. New York City's undocumented immigrants, as its legal immigrants, come from all continents and many countries of origin.

Jeffery Passel, a a leading analyst of immigrants, recently looked at the population of undocumented immigrants for a study by the Pew Hispanic Center. This study uses the so-called residual methodology, which makes it difficult to infer very much about the undocumented except their size. The study estimates that the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States may be 12 million by March 2006, and that they constitute about 30 percent of all immigrants nationwide. In New York City, the undocumented comprise only about 20 percent of all the immigrants here.

Two main groups of undocumented are those who entered the country without valid documents, including people crossing the Southwestern border clandestinely; and those who entered with valid visas but overstayed their visas' expiration or otherwise violated the terms of their admission. Most of New York City's undocumented belong to the latter category.

About 56 percent of unauthorized migrants in the United States come from Mexico. Another 22 percent of the total, come from the rest of Latin America, primarily from Central America. Between 2000 and 2005 the number of unauthorized migrants from Mexico increased by about 1.5 million. Other large increases occurred among unauthorized migrants from Central America (+465,000) and South and East Asia (+365,000).

New York City has many Asian immigrants. But, while the numbers are surely growing, there are still relatively few Mexicans or Central Americans here, compared to the West Coast.

The undocumented are more likely male. Many live in families and nearly two-thirds of their children were born in the United States and are citizens. Unauthorized workers are employed in a variety of occupations, although the distribution of the unauthorized workforce across occupations differs from that of native-born workers. For example, nearly a third of unauthorized workers were employed in service occupations compared to one-sixth of native workers. Unauthorized migrants are underrepresented in white-collar occupations. These facts are true of undocumented in New York City and throughout the United States.

Given the demographics of New York City, and its long-time political traditions, it seems likely that most New Yorkers will remain well disposed towards the city's immigrants, legal or illegal.

Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981, done demographic analyses for the New York Times since 1993, and been in charge of Gotham Gazette's demographics topic page since 2000. The opinions expressed are his alone. 

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
Gotham Gazette: 
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast Max Politics Podcast