Book Talk: Huddled Masses, Ever Yearning

BookimmigrantOne Out of Three: Immigrant New York in the Twenty-First Century
Edited by Nancy Foner
Columbia University Press

In 1776 Samuel Shaw, the mayor of Boston, referred to New York City as “a motley collection of all the nations under heaven.” Nearly a quarter millennium later, the city’s population is even more exuberantly and colorfully motley: Almost half of the city’s adults are foreign-born, and 168 “home” languages are spoken by its public school students. The city that hosts the United Nations is itself a metropolis of united nations.

New York has been the nation’s premier gateway for immigrants ever since Dutch fur traders sailed into town around 1625, and the latest installment in the history of huddled masses yearning to breathe free has just appeared from Columbia University Press: One Out of Three: Immigrant New York in the Twenty-First Century. The City University has served new immigrants since its founding in 1847, so it is no surprise that the provenance of this essay collection has CUNY written all over it. Its editor is Nancy Foner, a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and one of the nation’s leading immigration scholars, and nearly half of her authors are members of CUNY’s sociology community.

The focus here is mainly on immigration since the passage of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, which abolished national origin quotas. A few essays give broad economic overviews, with Foner’s introduction revealing that immigrants constitute 45 percent of the resident labor force, that the immigrant population has doubled since 1970, and that Queens is the most ethnically diverse county in the nation.

In “A Portrait of New York’s Immigrant Mélange,” Arun Lobo and Joseph Silva analyze the choreography of the city’s “demographic ballet,” which is constantly in flux. In 1970 Italians were the largest contingent; in 2010 it was the Dominicans. They also sound one running theme of One Out of Three: “Immigration is a central element in understanding how New York City has been able to grow and reinvent itself demographically.”

In his look at immigration and economic growth, David Kallick credits immigrants as key to the rebound of the city from the 1970s recession, noting their high labor participation rates and their “unexpectedly high” share of economic output, especially as small-business owners. Kallick also points out that, “contrary to common misperception, immigrants are significantly represented in jobs all across the occupational spectrum.”

Unsurprisingly, the seven essays focusing on individual ethnic groups are more serendipitous and vivid (most of the graphs and tables vanish). Annelise Orleck focuses on the several “waves” of Soviet Jews who headed for Brighton Beach (“Little Odessa”) and Forest Hills (the “Bukharin Broadway” in “Queensistan”). Among the best-educated immigrants, they have suffered much from downward occupational mobility, doctors driving cabs and the like. Orleck also takes us into the world of the Russian mob, featuring a prolific hit man who operated out of a nightclub named Rasputin.

New York has the largest Chinese population outside China, and Min Zhou tells us it grew 14 times larger from 1960 to 2010, spilling out of the historic Chinatown in Lower Manhattan, notably into Flushing and Sunset Park. Zhou also analyzes the “clustering” phenomenon among Chinese who gravitate to others in their own dialect group.

Pyong Gap Min says Korean immigration was largely post-1965 (before that most Koreans settled in Hawaii or on the West Coast). She says the historical Koreatown, centered at 32nd and Broadway, has been losing its import shops and also much of its population to Bergen County in New Jersey, but this cohort has been prospering in small personal-services businesses, especially cleaners and nail salons. There were 4,000 Korean nail salons in the New York-New Jersey area in 2006.

Jamaicans have been immigrating to the U.S. and Britain for more than a hundred years, but with the Hart-Celler Act they have been arriving on the nearer shore. Milton Vickerman notes the difficulties Jamaicans have adjusting to the race-consciousness of mainland life (Jamaica’s official motto is “Out of many, one people”). He also says about a third of non-Hispanic blacks in the city are Jamaican, and that their participation rate in the economy is “remarkably high” (79 percent for men, 83 percent for women). They seem to share the CUNY view of education. “Jamaicans tend to express annoyance with the idea that race is more important than educational and occupational qualifications.”

The Liberians of Staten Island are more recent arrivers. Bernadette Ludwig (a Graduate Center doctoral candidate) tells us nearly all have come in the past 15 years, refugees from a brutal civil war in their land, which was founded by slaves returning to West Africa. Resettled in the rundown Park Hill neighborhood, where a few Liberians had pioneered, these immigrants had no big ESL needs since English is Liberia’s official language. Ludwig focuses instead on parenting problems posed by “dissonant acculturation” (children turning too quickly from Liberian to Big Apple culture).

Perhaps the longest immigration history belongs to the Dominicans who, declaring their independence in 1844, were almost annexed by the U.S. under Grant, were a U.S. protectorate from 1905 to 1940, then ruled by the dictator Trujillo from 1930 to 1960. At the beginning of the 1960s there were 13,000 Dominican New Yorkers; in 2008 there were 585,000, and in the last decade Dominicans were the largest ethnic cohort of CUNY students. The chapter by Silvio Torres-Saillant (founder of CCNY’s Dominican Studies Institute) and Ramona Hernández (its current director) lays out the remarkable survival of Dominican cultural identity in the city, as epitomized by the Dominican Day Parade (they offer a brief history of it).

Baruch’s Robert Smith’s chapter on the city’s Mexican residents is haunted by the specter of the current congressional impasse on immigration law reform, with a strong focus on the importance of educational outreach. Of the 450,000 here now, Smith estimates that as many as 50 percent are undocumented, and his research shows that this status leads to “lower educational attainments and more negative outcomes.” A co-founder of the Mexican American Students Alliance, Smith ends on a hopeful note: “In good part, owing to efforts by CUNY, Mexican young people have increased knowledge that they can go to college, that it is affordable, and that legal status is not an obstacle to going.”

The three authors of the final chapter titled “The Next Generation Emerges” — Philip Kasinitz (Hunter), John Mollenkopf (Graduate Center), and Mary Waters (Harvard) — put the ball of immigration squarely in CUNY’s court: “The presence of CUNY, with its overwhelmingly immigrant and second-generation students and its tradition of celebrating immigrant achievement, has undoubtedly played an important role in the relative success of the second generation up until now.”

But then they add: “How it will continue to serve this population in more constrained fiscal circumstances is a key question to be faced in the years to come.”