From the Irish potato famine to the 1970s fiscal crisis, immigration has been key to the city’s growth in ways that are playing out again as asylum-seekers arrive.
Editorial credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com
New York has been “destroyed by the migrant crisis,” Mayor Eric Adams claimed in April at a news conference in Washington.
Adams’ administration projects spending more than $4 billion over the next two years to cover the costs of sheltering the migrants, with about two-thirds of that amount coming from city coffers. The mayor has repeatedly pressured the Biden administration for money to defray those expenses.
Adams also has been desperate to send as many asylum-seekers as he can to destinations outside the city, claiming that city homeless shelters are full and opening emergency centers to house the latest immigrants arriving in New York City.
All of which adds up to a message that the asylum-seekers are a drain on New York.
But that portrait is misguided at best, say economists and historians who have studied immigration. While the immediate challenges are real, immigrants historically have been the key to the city’s growth and have rescued the city from crises in the past. This time, they could hold the key to recovery from the pandemic.
“People who leave their country are self-selected and have the inherent ability to take risks because they believe they can do better elsewhere,’ said Neeraj Kaushal, a professor of social policy at the Columbia School of Social work who is a specialist in immigration. “That is the benefit the United States and the New York economy obtains.”
Two periods from the city’s past show how important immigrants have been.
In just 10 years between 1845 and 1855, the Irish population of New York tripled as immigrants fled the potato famine, helping to boost the city’s population from about 370,000 people to 630,000.
“They were the most impoverished people who have ever arrived,” said Tyler Anbinder, emeritus professor of history at The George Washington University. The Irish immigrants set off fears the city would be forced to raise taxes to deal with the influx and see a surge of crime. Instead, “the famine immigrants became hugely important for turbocharging the New York economy, mostly in the building industry.”
A little more than a century later, at the end of the 1970s New York had been hollowed out. The population of the city had dropped by more than 800,000 as people fled to the suburbs, and the city had lost 620,000 jobs as its manufacturing base imploded, driving a fiscal crisis that nearly led the city to bankruptcy.
Yet a change in federal law allowed a new wave of immigrants to come to the city, one of the most important factors in the city’s recovery, if not the most important.
As the city’s population recovered, immigrants rose to 36% of the population by 2009 compared with 18% in 1970. They represented 45% of people in the city with jobs, according to economist David Dyssegaard Kallick in the 2013 anthology “One Out of Three.”
“The increase in the number and proportion of immigrants in the city has fueled economic growth, filled in neighborhoods that had become underpopulated and helped make New York the extraordinarily diverse global city it is today, with immigrants working in a wide range of jobs from the top to the bottom of the economic ladder,” Kallick wrote.
Immigrants to the Rescue
Today, the city could benefit from immigrants to recover the population lost in the pandemic and to fill jobs that business owners say they cannot fill.
While data revisions by the U.S. Census Bureau have led to some uncertainty, the latest figures put the 2022 population of the city at 8.34 million, a decline of 400,000 in just two years, according to a recent analysis by City Comptroller Brad Lander.
International immigration, which for years offset the flight of native New Yorkers, slowed dramatically even before the pandemic. The Census Bureau estimates immigrants added only 50,000 to the city population between 2015 and 2017, with the number declining for the rest of the decade, bottoming out at 20,000 between 2020 and 2021.
Meanwhile, the city continues to need more workers as it attempts to match the pre-pandemic employment record.
“I hear from local business owners who are struggling to hire enough people to fill their job openings,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance at a recent event with Mayor Adams. He said his members would be happy to employ asylum-seekers if they were given legal authorization to work.
The opportunities won’t just be in the restaurant industry, either.
“They will be working in construction, as deliveristas and in food services, and working their way up the ladder,” said Lander.
Still, no one is disputing there are immediate problems. Whether one accepts the Adams administration’s $4 billion projection or lower estimates, there’s still a hefty cost to the city to provide housing and other aid to migrants now.
By contrast, in the 1990s, explained Kaushal from Columbia, a record number of immigrants arrived who snuck across the border or overstayed their visas. They found housing with relatives or friends and located where they could find cheap housing. Seeking government aid never crossed their mind, fearing it would mean deportation.
Given the national political gridlock over immigration policy, currently the only way into the country is to claim asylum. New York City’s unique right to shelter law, which requires New York to house anyone in need, encourages arrivals to seek help here.
It also changes how people get work. Rather than sliding into the underground economy, asylum-seekers wait for official work permits, which take at least six months,
That has become another roadblock to absorbing the immigrants.
Venezuela native Otoniel Herrera arrived in the city about two months ago, and now lives at the city-sponsored migrant shelter at a Holiday Inn in Manhattan’s Financial District. Through an acquaintance, the 28-year-old landed a gig helping to set up children’s fairs, with bounce houses and other attractions. He earns $100 each day for 12 hours of work — well below New York’s $15-an-hour minimum wage — sending some of it to his wife and two children back home.
But is not nearly enough to support himself, and a better job is out of reach without a work permit.
“I’ll work in whatever, but the problem is they won’t accept me,” Herrera said in Spanish. “I’m a welder, I’m a truck driver. But I at least need a work permit or a Social Security number.”
Still, say the historians and economists, the worries are overblown.
Historian Anbinder noted that 900,000 Irish immigrants passed through New York in the famine decade of 1845 to 1855. “That dwarfs what Texas, Arizona or Florida is experiencing and we got through it just fine,” he said. “And in New York people are losing their heads over 40,000 in a city of 8 million.”
And migrants won’t keep coming without some lure of opportunity, added Kaushal.
“They will stop coming if they can’t find jobs,” she said. “We saw that during the Great Recession: When unemployment rose, irregular migration declined.”
The influx brings silver linings to the city beyond the market — for instance, in the city public schools, which had lost 100,000 students following lengthy pandemic shutdowns, and with the drop lost funding tied to students.
New arrivals can help fill the empty seats and boost funding for individual schools.
Lander pointed to P.S. 124 in his Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, where the number of students had declined from 400 to 200.
The developer of two new apartment buildings decided during the pandemic that they could do better financially as homeless shelters, Lander said. They now house many asylum-seekers, adding about 120 children to P.S. 124, which already has a bilingual Spanish-English program.
“Do they have a lot of challenges? Yes,” he said. “But the population is back up, the energy is back in that school and it is stronger than it was three years ago.”