Perhaps the most important chapter in the history of the United States is the story of immigration, how people from all over the world came here seeking a better life, and in the process built our great nation. And so it seems strange, hundreds of years since the founding of the Republic that we are arguing with one another about immigrants and immigration policies. You’ve heard the accusations — they take our jobs, they commit crime, they use our schools and hospitals, and most of them are here illegally, having sneaked across our borders with only the shirts on their backs. At the same time, we hire them to take care of our lawns, care for our children, clean our homes, help build our houses, work in our restaurants, and do a dozen other jobs that make our lives easier.
And they aren’t only in menial jobs. The Kauffman Foundation, devoted to fostering entrepreneurship, says that entrepreneurial activity is nearly 40 percent higher for immigrants than native-born Americans. Immigrants were involved in founding companies such as Google, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems and eBay. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 40 percent of PhD scientists working here were born abroad. The Pentagon counts some 29,000 foreign-born, non-citizens currently serving in the armed forces.
In 2005, a New York Times article reported undocumented workers in the U.S. provided the Social Security System with as much as $7-billion a year, “but are ineligible for benefits.” According to an Adelphi University study in 2008, immigrants on Long Island contributed some $2.13 billion in taxes and other payments while costing local governments about $1.06 billion for K-12 education, health care and corrections, a net benefit for Long Island of over a billion dollars. The same study said that Hispanic tax contributions in Suffolk County in 2006 was estimated at $314 million.
All this contradictory information led us to take a closer look at how immigration affects Long Island, Suffolk County and the East End. A common misconception is that most immigrants are illegal which is far from the truth. A Brookings Institute study estimates that between 75 and 85 percent of immigrants on Long Island are here legally. The Dept. of Homeland Security says almost half the undocumented immigrants in the country are considered illegal, not because they sneaked across the border, but because they overstayed their visas.
We learned much more from a study released in October last year by the Fiscal Policy Institute, “New Americans on Long Island: A Vital Sixth of the Economy” prepared under a grant from the Hagedorn Foundation. (The FPI is a “non-partisan research and education organization that focuses on factors that affect the quality of life and economic well-being of New York State residents.”) Lots of “studies” are rigged to achieve the answers the sponsor wants, but we were reassured to see FPI’s list of advisors included educators from half-a-dozen colleges and universities in New York State and on Long Island, as well as officials from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Service Employees International Union, the Brookings Foundation and a former Secretary of Labor.
David Kallick, Director of FPI’s Immigration Research Initiative, remarks that we often assume we know all about immigrants by observing day laborers on the side of the road, but a few dozen men standing on street corners are a tiny fraction of immigrants. There are 20,395 foreign-born people in the five towns that make up the East End, composing 14 percent of our population and 17 percent of our labor force. East End immigrants make up a majority of “private household and personal service workers,” including housekeepers, maids, hairdressers, child care workers and welfare service aids. They represent over half of farming and landscape workers, nearly half in construction trades, and a third of food preparation workers. Sixty-five percent of immigrants are in families that own their own homes. More than half are part of families earning over $80,000 per year.
Even more surprising, the study reports that over half the immigrants hold white collar jobs. Nearly a quarter of small businesses on Long Island are owned by immigrants, including nearly half of individual-owned restaurants. An earlier FPI study based on census data said that “the expansion of the immigrant work force — both legal and illegal — has crowded out few American workers.” A third of foreign-born adults living on the East End are U.S. citizens. A little more than half are Latino and two-thirds of Latinos are immigrants, the others were born in the U.S. Immigrants from Mexico have tripled in number since 2000, reaching 2,376 in 2009, while Colombian immigrants have grown 142 percent to a 2009 total of 3,278. Other numerous nationalities are Guatemalan, El Salvadorian, Filipino, Brazilian and Ecuadorian.
The 2010 census counted Long Island’s immigrant population at 460,000, 18th largest in the country. East End immigration is similar to the rest of Long Island and the rest of the country. The Urban Institute reports that 28 of the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S. have over 40 percent minority populations, and in 14 metros, they are in the majority.
The title, North American Free Trade Agreement, sounds good. Yet NAFTA, implemented in 1994, so damaged employment in Mexico that it is cited as the main reason Mexican immigration to the U.S. has more than doubled since then. A fact sheet produced by Witness For Peace (a “politically independent, grassroots organization”) says that subsidies enable U.S. agricultural producers to, for example, export and sell corn at prices 30 percent below Mexican production costs, resulting in the loss of millions of Mexico’s farming jobs. WFP claims that renegotiation of NAFTA is essential to create economic opportunities in Mexico and to slow immigration to the U.S. The Trade Reform Accountability, Development and Employment (TRADE) Act in Congress was designed to correct these unintended consequences, but is caught in Washington gridlock.
A sad result of immigration is the disruption of family life on both sides of the border. Men who came to the U.S. without spouses and children find themselves alone and isolated in our society. They may find some solace in Spanish church services but according to Isabel Sepulveda de Scanlon, president of a Southampton Latino organization, many of them only leave their homes to work. Language is a huge problem, and funding for English instruction is dwindling in the tight economy.
The 14th Amendment established birthright citizenship for anyone born in the U.S. Yet Long Island Wins (an organization that “provides resources and insight to promote immigration solutions”) says that between 1998 and 2007, over 100,000 undocumented immigrants were deported resulting in thousands of American-born children, U.S. citizens, leaving with their parents for countries where they may no longer have social connections or legal rights.
Next week we’ll review how different factions and politicians see the situation and their suggested solutions for what often seems an intractable problem.