How Are They Perceived?
Discarding Myths Of Immigrant Stereotypes
Many immigrants bank locally, but those who send money home help the economy, too. Tribune Photo By Ira Cohen
By Brian M. Rafferty
The average immigrant snuck across the border from Mexico, works a job an American doesn’t want, refuses to speak or learn English and sends all his money back home so he can bring his family here and put them on welfare.
That’s a pretty grim image, and a racist stereotype that is just as offensive as an image of a black man picking cotton and eating watermelon, according to the Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform based in Washington, DC.
First and foremost, most immigrants that are seen every day in Queens are not here illegally. With a population of 2.2 million, nearly half of which was not born in this country, and with only an estimated 600,000 illegal immigrants living in New York City, odds are that the majority of people in Queens who were not born here are allowed to be here.
A Day’s Work
In Queens, some of the most visible immigrants are those who gather near major intersections throughout the borough looking for day work. These day laborers, however, are often not here illegally, and often choose their line of work for the money.
The laborers say there are different reasons for why they chose this lifestyle, but most claim they make more money out on the street than working full-time at local companies. Few problems have arisen from the laborers even though they come in swarms every day and work is never guaranteed.
“It’s every man for himself,” said Giovanni, a 32-year-old day laborer, who declined to give his last name. “It’s survival of the fittest.”
Pierre, a Puerto Rican day laborer, said that he used to work for the MTA, but the money for the jobs he gets waiting on Jamaica Avenue pay much more. “I made $450 my first day,” he said. “Ten more years out here and I will be able to retire.”
Giovanni said the least amount he makes is $80 a working day. Larry, a 40-year-old carpenter, said he makes up to $150 a day.
Many of the day laborers work in some branch of construction, but they are not the only immigrants working.
“The largest wave of immigration to the U.S. since the early 1900s coincided with our lowest national unemployment rate and fastest economic growth,” according to a study titled “Immigration and Unemployment: New Evidence,” released by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in Arlington, Va.
“Immigrant entrepreneurs create jobs for U.S. and foreign workers, and foreign-born students allow many U.S. graduate programs to keep their doors open,” the report stated. “While there has been no comprehensive study done of immigrant-owned businesses, we have countless examples: in Silicon Valley, companies begun by Chinese and Indian immigrants generated more than $19.5 billion in sales and nearly 73,000 jobs in 2000.
The desire to speak English in order to assimilate is very strong within the immigrant community – legal and illegal.
Within 10 years of arrival, more than 75 percent of immigrants speak English well, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Demand for English classes at the adult level far exceeds supply.
The City University Of New York offers adult education classes for English that are always packed with people seeking to learn.
“People get frustrated with store clerks and other people they interact with who don’t speak English well,” said Sanjay, who works as a clerk at a 7-11 on Northern Boulevard. “But I would guess my English is a whole lot better than their Hindi.”
As for working toward naturalization, the process can be slow. However, there was an enormous spike of resident aliens rushing to become citizens after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Sharing The Wealth
Perceived as a negative, billions of dollars are sent across the borders every year to the families of immigrants.
The remittance business has become a new focus of many banks as an increasing number of immigrants continue to support their families after coming to America. Last year, workers in the United States sent $32 billion home to Latin America, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Day laborers on Jamaica Avenue gather for a free lunch. Tribune Photo By Ira Cohen
The U.S. Post Office has offered wire services to Mexico since 1996, but recently extended those services to countries such as the Dominican Republic, Columbia, El Salvador and Ecuador, among others, according to Toy Gaynor, a spokesperson there.
Citibank, Federal Reserve, and Wachovia have all initiated programs in recent years to make it easier to transfer money overseas. These industry giants are trying to undercut the price of conventional wire stores such as Western Union, which sometimes take considerable percentages of cash transactions and offer poor exchange rates.
The Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies calls this practice one of the most targeted and effective forms of direct foreign investment.
On The Dole?
The final myth is that of the immigrant who brings his family here to sign them up for social services and welfare programs.
“Immigrants are not a drain on government finances,” wrote Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute. “The National Academy of Sciences study found that the typical immigrant and his or her offspring will pay a net $80,000 more in taxes during their lifetimes than they collect in government services. For immigrants with college degrees, the net fiscal return is $198,000.”
That is not always the case, Griswold was clear to point out. “It is true that low-skilled immigrants and refugees tend to use welfare more than the typical ‘native’ household, but the 1996 Welfare Reform Act made it much more difficult for newcomers to collect welfare. As a result, immigrant use of welfare has declined in recent years along with overall welfare rolls.”
Immigrants come to work and reunite with family members, the Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform explained. Immigrant labor force participation is consistently higher than native-born, and immigrant workers make up a larger share of the U.S. labor force (12.4 percent) than they do the U.S. population (11.5 percent).
Moreover, the ratio between immigrant use of public benefits and the amount of taxes they pay is consistently favorable to the U.S. In one estimate, immigrants earn about $240 billion a year, pay about $90 billion a year in taxes, and use about $5 billion in public benefits. In another cut of the data, immigrant tax payments total $20 to $30 billion more than the amount of government services they use.
-Sarah Stanfield and
Andrew Moesel contributed