Immigrant Life and the Streets of New York

While the politicians argue over the border and the yuppie environmentalists gnash their teeth over miles per gallon, the U.S. economy runs on the backs of immigrants — like it always has. In New York the Center for an Urban Future recently released a report that demonstrates the economy there and in other big cities is propelled not by Citicorp, but by thousands upon thousands of small immigrant entrepreneuers. These are the people who Tom Tancredo and his supporters want to run out of the country, the people hunted down by the posses in the southwest. Baiting immigrants is the lifeblood of every politican — liberal or conservative.

And yet these people have become the economic heartbeat of the nation. Neither they nor their children have health care. They are denied food. There is no unemployment insurance. They are picked up on the corner and dragged off to jail before being returned to their native lands. And, of course, if they are Muslims, they face the very real prospect of being labelled terrorists in which case they are denied even the most basic legal rights. The sweat shop all too often looks like a commodious modern workplace to many of them. They live in the wonderful Victorian world the conservatives have designed for them. And it’s not just the conservatives. It’s the liberals — the politicians in Washington, the upper classes in Manhattan, the smug yuppies of San Francisco and Northern California, swaggering yahoos of Texas, who haggle over whether immigrants, illegal or legal, should receive basic social services.

In New York earlier today in a wrenching funeral service at a mosque, hundreds of West Africans prayed in the streets for the nine children and one woman killed in last Thursday’s fire in the South Bronx. Some of the children were buried in New Jersey. Others will be buried in Mali.

“We will see what we can do in terms of housing, in terms of employment, in terms of ensuring health care, in terms of ensuring that a community that is so much a part of New York City as every immigrant community is, is tended to and is understood and appreciated,” Governor Spitzer said. Spitzer at least might turn out to be a politician with some populist leanings. At least, he is no Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton.

“Immigrant entrepreneurs have emerged as key engines of growth for cities from New York to Los Angeles,” says the Center for an Urban Future study. “…starting a greater share of new businesses than native-born residents, stimulating growth in sectors from food manufacturing to health care, creating loads of new jobs, and transforming once-sleepy neighborhoods into thriving commercial centers. And immigrant entrepreneurs are also becoming one of the most dependable parts of cities’ economies: while elite sectors like finance (New York), entertainment (Los Angeles) and energy (Houston) fluctuate wildly through cycles of boom and bust, immigrants have been starting businesses and creating jobs during both good times and bad.”

You can read the study here [pdf].


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