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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

You're on an older version of the site, please click here to view the current site

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
An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Immigration.

By Chaleampon Ritthichai

Amnesty For Undocumented Immigrants

Like many other undocumented immigrants, Tony Amadi often has to weigh a difficult decision. Last year when his mother fell sick in Nigeria, Amadi had to decide whether to stay and work in New York or to leave and face the possibility of not being able to return to the country. If he leaves the country, Amadi will be barred from entering the United States for at least 10 years.

"I want to stay and make a living here," said Amadi who works as a deliveryman.

Stories like Amadi's are quite common in immigrant communities.

"Undocumented immigrants are being penalized in inhumane ways - through family separations, through the inability to organize and stand up for their rights at their workplaces." said Chung-Wha Hong of New York Immigration Coalition. "All the while we're using them to do the hardest, dirtiest work."

In New York City there are over 400,000 undocumented immigrants. With nation wide figures estimated at eight to ten million more, advocacy groups have launched a campaign for general amnesty for illegal immigrants.

The issue will be highlighted this month when 7,000 immigrant advocates from all over the nation are expected to gather in Washington, D.C. to rally for the legalization of undocumented immigrants.

"Amnesty would be tremendously helpful in bringing immigrants out of the shadows," said Omar Henriques, immigration campaign coordinator for the Service Employees International Union, which has started a postcard campaign in New York City.

"We are going to deliver one million signed postcards petitioning Congress and President Bush to make immigration reforms that will allow hardworking, undocumented people to receive legal status," said Henriques.

Prior to 9/11 President George W. Bush was keen on the idea of amnesty, especially for Mexican immigrants, who account for nearly half of the country's undocumented immigrants. But after the terrorist attacks last September, national security and border patrol became the administration's top priority. The issue of amnesty was picked up again by the Democrats this past spring when House minority leader Dick Gephardt said he plans to introduce legislation granting permanent resident status to illegal immigrants.

"We are pushing it this year so that the issue is kept alive during elections," said Hong. "But we need to put together a bipartisan set of people. So we don't want it to be used by just one party to say, 'We're better than the other party' and to use it to attack the other party."

A political compromise between the two parties was struck the last time the United States granted amnesty to illegal immigrants in 1986. In an exchange for amnesty, the conservative legislators with labor backing were able to put in employer sanctions, making it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to get jobs.

Although the amnesty was a big success in California and Texas, only about 100,000 applicants were from New York. Nationwide only 1.6 million turned in the application -- it was expected that two million out of the 3.9 million illegal immigrants would apply.

Lower-than-expected turnout prompted another attempt to push for amnesty in 1996 but it failed without much debate. Now advocates believe the situation is much different because the initiative is supported by unions.

"The AFL-CIO changed their position on legalization of undocumented workers in 2000," said Henriques, referring to one of the biggest coalitions of America's unions. "This is a win-win situation. If you have bargaining power as a collective, you are in a better position to fight for benefits."

But anti-immigration groups say that unions are looking for more union members in the same way that politicians are looking for more votes. More importantly, they claim, amnesty rewards lawbreakers and encourages more illegal immigration to the Unites States.

"Amnesties always lead to more illegal immigrants," said Jack Martin of The Federation for American Immigration Reform. "We have a generous immigrant law that allows people to come into the country legally. There's no reason that we should tolerate those who do not respect our law."

Proponents of the amnesty argue that historically laws could be on the wrong side, pointing to Prohibition and Jim Crow laws. "If you have a bad law, a lot of people are just going to keep breaking it. They want to just live, and do what they need to survive," Hong said. "We need to fix our laws, so that it allows people who need to come here to come here legally."

But until the law is fixed, undocumented immigrants like Tony Amadi will live in a predicament. With the money he sent for medical expense, Amadi's mother is in good condition but there is always a constant worry on his mind about what's to come.

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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