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Looking forward to the 2007 ASA Annual Meeting in New York…

New York: A Unique Immigrant City

by Nancy Foner, Hunter College and the Graduate Center of CUNY

There is only one New York, especially when it comes to immigration. New York City is America’s classic immigrant city; it was the major historic gateway for the country’s eastern and southern European arrivals a century ago and is a major receiving center today. Its immigrant history, the composition— and extraordinary diversity—of its current immigrant streams, and its institutions have combined to make it an immigrant city like no other in the United States.

Successive Waves

New York City is accustomed to immigration. Throughout the 20th century, the proportion of immigrants in the city was 20 percent or more in all but one census year (1970), and even then it stood at 18 percent. The peak point of the century was 1910, when 41 percent of New Yorkers were foreign-born, but the actual numbers are at an alltime high today. New York had a whopping 2.9 million immigrants in 2000 or 36 percent of the population.

Given the city’s immigrant history and the enormous contemporary inflow, the vast majority of New Yorkers have a close immigrant connection. If they are not an immigrant, they have a parent or grandparent who is. A remarkable 60 percent of New Yorkers—or almost 5 million people—are immigrants or children of immigrants. Several million more have grandparents or great-grandparents who arrived from Russia or Italy a century ago in the last great immigration wave. Many black New Yorkers are descended from immigrants who arrived in the early 20th century from the then-British Caribbean.

Immigrant Diversity

New York’s contemporary immigrant population stands out for its extraordinary diversity. What is remarkable is the large number from so many different countries. In 2000, the top three groups—Dominicans, Chinese, and Jamaicans—were just under 30 percent of all the foreign-born. No other country accounted for more than five percent, and there were substantial numbers of many West Indian, Latin American, Asian, and European nationalities.

The incredible ethnic diversity of New York’s immigrants is matched by the heterogeneity of their skills. The mixture of nationalities has ensured a mix of class and occupational origins. In 2000, nearly a quarter of foreign-born New Yorkers age 25 and older had a college degree; at the other end of the spectrum, 35 percent had not completed high school.

Changing Ethnoracial Groups

Of great significance is that each ethnoracial group in New York City (white, black, Hispanic, and Asian) includes a substantial proportion of recent immigrants. New York’s black population is being Caribbeanized by the enormous West Indian influx, and a small but growing number of Africans is adding new diversity. In 2000, one out of five immigrant New Yorkers (nearly 600,000) was from the non-Hispanic Caribbean, mostly Jamaicans, Guyanese, Haitians, and Trinidadians. Altogether, more than a quarter of the city’s 2 million non- Hispanic blacks were foreign born.

A third of the city’s immigrants are from Latin America. Gone are the days when Hispanic meant Puerto Rican; Puerto Ricans are now only about a third of the city’s Hispanic population, outnumbered by a combination of Dominicans, Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Colombians, and other Latin Americans. In the last 15 years, the number of Mexicans has grown by leaps and bounds. Still, in 2005, they were only five percent of the immigrant total in New York—compared to 40 percent or more of the immigrant population in the other top American immigrant cities (Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago).

A quarter of New York City’s foreignborn are Asians; Chinese are still the largest group, but there are also many Koreans, Indians, and Filipinos, as well as a growing number of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. New York continues to receive substantial numbers of European immigrants. In 2000, the former Soviet Union (including Russia and Ukraine) ranked fourth among the top sending countries to New York City, Poland was 15th, and about one out of four of the city’s non-Hispanic whites was foreign-born.

New York Institutions

Immigrants come to a city whose institutions bear the stamp of earlier European immigration, and they are leaving their mark. Labor unions are a powerful presence in New York, many formed and led in the past by Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants. Today, the rank and file includes large numbers of immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia who are beginning to move up into various leadership positions. Perhaps the most famous immigrant union leader is Roger Toussaint, the Trinidadian-born president of the Transport Workers Union who was in charge during the 2005 transit strike.

Ethnic politics is the lifeblood of New York City politics. For many years, politicians made ritual visits to the “three Is”—Israel, Italy, and Ireland—the touchstones of so many Jewish and Catholic voters. By 2003, after two years in office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already visited the Dominican Republic three times. Many Catholic churches have been “Mexicanized,” “Dominicanized,” and “Haitian-Creolized.” St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the seat of the Catholic archdiocese of New York, holds a mass every Sunday in Spanish.

The City University of New York—the largest urban public university system in the nation, with more than 226,000 degree-credit students—is well-known for providing a pathway to mobility for the children of Jewish immigrants in the past. Today it is serving the same role for tens of thousands of newcomers as well as a growing second-generation. In fall 2006, 38 percent of first-time freshmen at CUNY’s 11 senior and six community colleges were born outside the United States, and CUNY boasts that its undergraduates speak 131 languages in addition to English and represent 172 countries.

Celebrating Immigrants

In general, New York is a city that likes to celebrate immigrants. Republican and Democratic mayors praise immigrants for revitalizing the city’s economy and neighborhoods, and the slogan for this year’s Immigrant History Week (a celebration of immigrants’ contributions to the city sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs) was “New York ♥ Immigrants.”

It is important, of course, not to get too carried away with these images. Immigrants in New York often end up in low-paid, unpleasant jobs that nobody else wants, and there is plenty of ethnic and racial prejudice and discrimination. Yet because of its history, its institutions, and the composition of its population, New York is a city that feels comfortable with immigration. A New York Times story put it well in describing how Rudolph Giuliani, when mayor of New York, championed the cause of immigrants and defended the undocumented, but on the campaign trail for the Republican presidential nomination has taken a much harsher tone. As the story noted, he is a long way from Ellis Island.