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Understanding Modern Immigration in New York

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Raga Justin: Welcome to New York and Immigration. I'm your host, Raga Justin. As we've said in previous episodes, New York is one of the most diverse states in the country. Take Utica for example, which is home to a growing number of refugee communities. And then there's New York City, which is one of the most culturally varied cities in the world. But how did New York become so diverse? And what does immigration into the state look like today?

Even though we're calling this episode New York and Immigration, we'll also be looking at migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. And we'll help explain the different forms of international movement into the state.

You may be familiar with Ellis Island as an icon of American history. In the 1800s, there was a mass movement of people to the US, largely from various European countries, and New York's harbor was a common port of entry. Ellis Island was established in 1892 to process immigrants coming through the harbor. Over time, the US government decided it wanted to restrict people of certain ethnicities and nationalities from coming into the US in order to prevent the country from getting too diverse. In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act was passed, which established immigration quotas. These quotas heavily restricted most people from immigrating to the US unless they were from Western Europe. 

This wasn't the first discriminatory immigration law to go into effect, as other laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act had been implemented in years past. But it was a notable victory for those who wanted a closed-door immigration policy. It wasn't until decades later that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed which removed the discriminatory quotas. This led to a new wave of international movement to New York, especially in the '70s and '80s. That wave of immigration featured folks coming from all parts of Asia, the Caribbean, Africa and more. It was these movements of people that helped make New York the incredibly diverse place it is today.

Now we're going to take a current look at international movement to New York. We'll start by going over the difference between immigrants, migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. These terms are often used interchangeably but there are nuanced differences. Immigrants are people who move to a new country to establish permanent residence. In the US, permanent residents have green cards and have to go through a separate process if they wish to become a US citizen. To go over the differences between permanent residents and naturalized citizens, we spoke with Guillermo Martinez of the Institute on Immigrant Integration Research and Policy at the Rockefeller Institute of Government.

Guillermo Martinez: The main factor differentiating citizenship from a legal permanent resident is the ability to vote. There's been a whole host of court rulings at state courts and federal courts regarding the rights of legal permanent residents versus the rights of native-born. So that gets complicated. And there's federal restrictions on if you fall on hard times within the first five years of being an immigrant with a green card in the United States, but you really can't access the safety net still programs, right? Unless you're a child that needs healthcare, then you have access to the children's health insurance program. Somebody who is here was given a green card and wants to become a citizen, there's a five-year waiting period. There's a fee that has to be paid on application that keeps on getting more expensive and it's over $1,000 now.

RJ: Permanent residents who want to become citizens also have to demonstrate a basic understanding of English, as well as civic and historical knowledge of the US.

For migrants, there is no universally accepted definition but it's often used as a catch-all term for people who are moving long distances for economic or safety reasons. Though some like to use migrants as a term to describe people who are temporarily relocating, whereas immigrants permanently relocate. Again, there is not a clear, legal, universally accepted definition for migrants.

Asylum seekers in the United States are people who declare the legal right to seek asylum at a border crossing. The US can grant asylum and give a fresh start to those who are fleeing persecution. More on that later.

Refugees are given refugee status by the international community, the United Nations or a state that is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Refugees are defined as people fleeing persecution under one of the five protected grounds, which are race, religion, social group, political opinion or nationality. So refugees are similar to asylum seekers, with the main difference being that refugees already have their status determined before arriving in the US, whereas asylum seekers have their status determined after their arrival. This means that refugees are protected from being sent back to the dangerous situation they escaped, whereas asylum seekers who are not granted asylum are at risk of deportation.

Now that we've distinguished the differences between these terms, we'll take a look at the migrant news stories taking place in New York State during the spring and summer of 2023.

It is estimated that over 70,000 migrants have arrived in New York City between the springs of 2022 and 2023. These are people from varying countries and backgrounds. But what many have in common is that they are seeking asylum in the US. As a response, New York City began busing small numbers of migrants to other parts of the state, much to the chagrin of some town and county officials who say that the city has not been communicative enough about their plans.

Some officials also raised concerns about safety. Though it should be noted that studies show that immigrants both documented and undocumented, commit crimes at a lower rate than US-born citizens. Immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees are also subject to background checks as part of their legal processes.

So basically, we have nonprofits and local officials trying to navigate the process of supplying migrants with housing and basic necessities. Advocacy groups working with the migrants have reported a need for clothing, toiletries items, and extra food. New York City has a contract with a company to take care of food, security, and housing for the migrants but we don't know if the city will sustain that support in the long term. On top of these logistical issues are the legal issues that migrants have to face. Navigating the asylum process and New York's courts is far from a streamlined experience. We spoke with Sarah Rogerson from Albany Law School about what it's like to file for asylum.

Sarah Rogerson: Certainly you have to assert what's called a credible fear which means you have to document why you have this fear of persecution, right? Credible in the eyes of the government means documented. So you can say that you fear for your life but unless you can show or prove that that fear is credible and factually supportable it can be tough to make your claim.

There's also a one-year time limit. So one year from the time of entry, you have to figure out that there's this claim available, that what it entails, find a lawyer ideally, many people don't, and their claims suffer as a result. And identify all of the different papers that have to be filed in order to make your claim all within a year of arriving in the United States.

There are a lot of different constraints on folks in terms of being able to, it's not unusual for an asylum application to exceed 1,000 pages of supporting documentation. That is not unusual in these cases. So when you're talking about hundreds of people with these claims, you can imagine what the demand for legal services looks like.

RJ: In addition to the complicated filing process, asylum seekers cannot work until a set amount of time after their application has been filed.

SR: Because of the way that employment authorization works with asylum, the asylum application has to be filed before somebody can apply for employment authorization and there needs to be a certain period of time that has passed. So it gets very complicated on the work permit front such that people might be working for that whole year to get their asylum application prepared and they can't work that whole year and then some after the filing until they are eligible.

RJ: There's also the issue of the court system being backlogged. As I reported with the Times Union, there are more than 190,000 pending cases in New York's immigration courts. Meaning that asylum seekers could be waiting years before getting their case heard. To read my article on asylum seekers in the Capitol region, check out the description. Next, we'll talk about some ways state and local governments play a role in the immigration process.

The New York State Office of New Americans was established within the Department of State to assist immigrants with information, referrals to free legal aid, civic education, job coaching, and more. There are local versions of this type of office as well with the City of Buffalo having their own Office of New Americans which connects immigrants to informational resources and city services. It also implements policies that assist with integration.

Another major aspect of immigration that your local government has control over is their level of collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, often referred to as ICE. Sarah Rogerson of Albany Law School explains.

SR: We're in an era of immigration law and policy that some scholars have dubbed, the new immigration federalism. Where the federal government still retains control over the administration of immigration law. But for lots of different reasons and in a lot of different ways the federal government has ceded enforcement in some ways to state and local governments through certain programs. One of those is the 287 program which refers to a particular section of the immigration law that empowers state and local governments to coordinate with federal immigration enforcement.

In places like Albany City where the mayor very early on in the trend of sanctuary declared Albany to be a sanctuary city. That's not legally significant in terms of federal immigration law, but what it does from a state and local perspective is it lets immigrants know, we're not going to ask you for your immigration status when you come and pay your parking ticket or apply for a dog license, or access any of the city services that we have available to you.

RJ: Sanctuary cities have been a growing trend in New York state with cities like Albany, Rochester, and Ithaca identifying themselves as such. There is no true definition or set of requirements for what makes a sanctuary city so the protection given to undocumented peoples can vary. The general idea is that localities to a certain degree can decide not to be involved in immigration enforcement if they don't want to. This is something that your local and county governments can make decisions on and something you can make your voice heard on through voting and contacting your local officials.

Immigrants have and will continue to shape the identity of New York and the United States. With the declining birth rates, immigration is a significant contributor to the net growth of the US population. Here is Guillermo Martinez on the economic effects of immigrants in our communities.

GM: Immigrants in New York have played a huge role in revitalizing upstate communities. Buffalo, Rochester, Utica, and Syracuse, had lost in a range of 30% to 50% of its native-born population. Without immigrants moving into those communities, those cities would be devastated, right?

The statistic I read recently was that out of the refugee resettlement program over the last 30 years, 40% of those refugees have purchased homes in Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, and Utica. So they've become homeowners, right? So that's a huge economic stimulus for your local economy when you're a homeowner. Now all the associated costs that come to being a homeowner, paying mortgages up, keeping your home, by paying for the plumber, the electrician, the roofer, all those things, right? That's economic- It becomes an economic engine. 

About 4.5 million New Yorkers are considered immigrants and they contribute almost 25% of the gross state product which is $1.8 trillion. So the economic engine is driven in the state a quarter of it by immigrant labor and immigrant participation in its economic system.

RJ: But looking outside of economics, statistics and policy, it is important to remember that immigrants are neighbors, business owners, friends, and members of our communities who have value simply because they are human and are hoping to achieve the American dream just like many of us. That's all for today. Keep learning and I'll see y'all later.

Watch the Video

NY&Understanding Modern Immigration in New York | NY& Immigration

In this episode of "NY& Immigration", Raga Justin dives into the intricacies of the different forms of international movement to New York, explaining the distinctions between immigrants, migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.


Raga's Reporting on Asylees

Referenced Studies on Immigrants and Crime

Cato Institue Study on Illegal Immigration and Crime

New York State Office of New Americans


Guillermo Martinez: Deputy Director & Intergovernmental Liaison of the Institute on Immigrant Integration Research and Policy at the Rockefeller Institute of Government

Sarah Rogerson: Director of The Edward P. Swyer Justice Center and Immigration Law Clinic at Albany Law School