The Impact of Immigration on Long Island

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1) has sponsored a bill, H.R. 1106 in the House of Representatives that would appear to deport naturalized citizens convicted of gang-related violent crime.  The text is not yet available, but the title is “To amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to provide that individuals who naturalized under title III of that Act, who are affiliated with a criminal gang, are subject to revocation of citizenship, and for other purposes.”  The bill is co-sponsored by his neighboring colleague in the New York delegation, Rep. Peter King (R-NY-2).

(The Library of Congress site notes that bills are generally sent to the Library of Congress from GPO, the Government Publishing Office, a day or two after they are introduced on the floor of the House or Senate. Delays can occur when there are a large number of bills to prepare or when a very large bill has to be printed.  The beginning of a session is naturally such a time.)

The bill is unlikely to be passed by a Democratic-majority House, however, it may already have served its purpose of intimating to Zeldin’s base that he is serious about protecting them from violence and crime.  His press release has already been published in local newspapers, furthering the narrative of the scary immigrant, someone who has allegedly come to the U.S. to take advantage of its bounty while victimizing its inhabitants.

While this narrative is a winner as far as getting votes, there are several problems with it.  First, while the actions of gangs like MS-13 are splashy and attention-getting, most of the crime committed by gangs on Long Island, violent and otherwise, is committed by other gangs, made up for the most part by people born and raised here.  The Crips, the Bloods, the Outlaws, the Pagans and the Hells Angels are all responsible for most of the organized crime on Long Island — human trafficking, drug dealing, and so on.  Any efforts to keep people safe have to face actual threats, not low-probability bogeymen.

Second, deporting naturalized citizens is unlikely to end the problem of gang violence.  What it will do is kick the can down the road.  We can look to the deportation policy of the 1990s for a case study in how sending young men who have become gang members to a country unprepared to deal with them will feed the problem, not make it go away.  When people fleeing the violence of civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala made their way to Los Angeles in the 1980s, they were preyed on by L.A.’s existing gangs. In response, they created their own gangs, and integrated into the local crime scene.  Deported during the Clinton administration to countries that had no idea what was coming or the infrastructure to deal with them once they arrived, these men continued the only activity they knew, and the gangs spread.  The MS-13 and 18th Street gangs are not foreign invaders in the U.S. — they were homegrown, and simply shifting them around the continent does little to stop them.  What would stop them on Long Island is changing our own behavior: gang members work in the areas that cater to our desire for cheap service by failing to scrutinize employment documents, especially in the construction, restaurant, delivery service, and landscaping industries.  Stop going with the lowest bidder, patronize establishments that pay their workers fairly, and/or make it a do-it-yourself project.

And third, this narrative builds a pernicious fear of people who are in any way different.  Fear sells — just look at the trend in car commercials. It used to be that cars were marketed simply based on how attractive the driver would become to others.  Now, many are marketed on the idea that the world is a dreadful place and the only thing that will keep the driver safe is driving the equivalent of an armored vehicle.  But the effect is to create a wave of drivers who drive less safely, possibly because they believe that their car will protect them from their own inattention.

Buying votes with fear does something similar; it creates a climate in which the basis of community living — trust in each other– is eroded.  It also does a disservice to the actual role of immigrants on Long Island. According to the 2015 report “New Americans on Long Island” by the Fiscal Policy Institute, immigrants account for approximately one-fifth of the island’s economic output, up from one-sixth just two years previously.  And this isn’t coming at the expense of U.S.-born Long Islanders:

Median income for immigrant families on Long Island is $97,000. By national standards, that is quite high—the overall median in the United States is $64,000. However, Nassau and Suffolk are among the most affluent counties in the country. By local standards immigrants are doing only moderately well—the median for Long Island families with no immigrant adults is $119,000.“New Americans on Long Island”

 (Note: “median” refers to the value in the middle of a range of values — it is not the average, which is the range all added up and then divided by the number of values.) Despite making less money, immigrants are more likely to be of working age, entrepreneurs, or holders of administrative support jobs.

Of course, income varies, most notably with association with country of birth.  According to the report, people from El Salvador are more likely to earn less (and are more likely to be unauthorized) than people from the Philippines.  But the gist is that when thinking of immigrant impact on Long Island, people should be thinking of people who are employed in white collar jobs as well as those in restaurants, construction, and landscaping.  Think Stony Brook University’s almost 6,000 non-U.S. students, scholars, and faculty, or the folks at Brookhaven National Lab.  This kind of employment generates employment for others: for all the people who sell them goods and services from pizza to legal work.

Even during the recession, the presence of immigrants was a net positive for Long Islanders.  The director of FPI’s Immigration Research Initiative summarized their research in the Regional Labor Review (pdf) that answered the following questions:

What happens to U.S.-born workers as immigrants enter the economy? Do they share in a growing economic pie, or do they lose jobs as immigrants gain them? Do wages for U.S.-born workers go up or down? And, when wages change, is it because of immigration or is it due to other factors?“Immigration’s Impacts on the Long Island Economy”

The study looked at immigration at three economic peaks: 1990, 2000 and 2007, and use census data to make comparisons of how workers fared at comparable points in the business cycle.  Answering their questions, they found that “the Long Island economy has generally absorbed immigrants at the levels at which they have come in recent years with positive benefits to the overall economy and with few negative effects on U.S.-born workers.”

The research took into account the costs associated with unauthorized immigration (such as the administration of justice). The U.S.-born workers who were negatively impacted during these periods were black males who did not attend college and white males who did not complete high school, who saw stagnating or eroding wages during the periods under comparison.  However, as their overall unemployment rates did not change with immigration peaks, it’s not clear if this was impacted more by immigration than by other factors such as incarceration rates. The upshot was that immigrants did not displace U.S.-born workers.  (The results were also reported in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.)

None of this is the same as saying that Long Islanders have it easy, or that everyone is doing equally well.  This is seen in the Long Island Index’s “2018 Indicators Report.”  The loss of manufacturing as the dominant industry and its replacement by healthcare, recreation, and construction has illustrated this starkly: most of Long Island’s economy is a closed circle, and thus cannot grow.  But the continued scapegoating of immigrants, as in H.R. 1106, instead of doing the real work of targeting the structural impediments to prosperity for all is not helping. Grandstanding does not help the Long Islanders who need it most.

(Originally published March 5, 2019)