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New York Times- 30, May 2007, Overhaul of Immigration Law Could Reshape New York

By May 30, 2007No Comments

S.J. Jung, YKASEC Board President & NAKASEC Board member is quoted in the article.

Overhaul of Immigration Law Could Reshape New York
By: NINA BERNSTEIN (NYT); Metropolitan Desk
Published: May 30, 2007

Few places in the United States could be more deeply affected by the proposed overhaul of legal immigration than New York, say scholars and demographers of immigration.

Steven Lai, 46, a locksmith on the Lower East Side, immigrated from China as a young adult, sponsored by his mother, Oilhang Lai, left, who works in the store, too. Mr. Lai learned English and the locksmith trade in America.

The proposed law certainly would not end the flow of legal immigration to New York. But it could profoundly alter the currents that have long fed the city’s mom and pop entrepreneurship, its kaleidoscopic diversity, and family networks that nurture and help assimilate newcomers.

More of the city’s newcomers, compared with immigrants in other parts of the country, continue to gain entry through the very family visas that the pending bill would restrict or abolish — and that would be replaced with a point system based on skills and education.

New York was front and center when Congress refashioned America’s immigration system in 1965, replacing quotas based on race and national origin with a system centered on reunifying families. This time, with heated debate focused on illegal immigrants who cross the Mexican border and settle mainly in the West and South, New York’s experience has received less attention.

Yet central to the city’s storied comeback from the precipice of population loss and bankruptcy in the 1970s, most agree, was the big influx of unexpected immigrants — an unintended consequence of the 1965 overhaul, sponsored by an influential Brooklyn representative, Emanuel Celler.

These days, in a Lower East Side neighborhood that has been a cradle of family chain migration to America for 200 years, the deli at Delancey and Allen Streets is a 24-hour operation run by a man from Bangladesh — one of about 70 relatives to follow a Bangladeshi seaman who jumped ship here in 1941. In luxury condominiums nearby, the newest residents include the affluent great-grandchildren of the eastern and southern European immigrants whose teeming poverty in the tenements prompted immigration quotas in the 1920s to keep out their kind.

And when these newcomers need a key, they turn to Good Locksmith Inc. on Grand Street, a business run by the Lai family from China, who finally unlocked their door to America, relative by relative, after being unwelcome by law for a century.

“I love what I have now, and everything I have now, I work on it,” said Steven Lai, 46, whose immigration at 23 depended not only on his mother’s sponsorship, but on a long line of male forebears who endured 20-year family separations and exclusion from citizenship as they labored in the United States, first building railroads in 19th-century California. “Family is more important than everything else,” said Mr. Lai whose mother, Oilhang, 66, helps in the store.

Under the proposed point system, Mr. Lai would have been locked out. The measure aims to reduce chain migration — the practice of one immigrant sponsoring others — and to make room for those the federal government selects as the world’s best, brightest and most easily assimilated. It would end preferences for the adult children and siblings of United States citizens, and eliminate a citizen’s right to sponsor parents. Instead, the government would admit foreigners who scored highest on a scale that values advanced degrees, skills approved by the Department of Labor, and fluency in English, much more than family ties. Only those admitted on points could sponsor their spouse and minor children.

Yet immigrants like Mr. Lai, who learned English and locksmith skills at night school and opened his business 18 years ago with family savings, have been a vital economic engine for the city, said Gary Gerstle, a historian of immigration who teaches at Vanderbilt University. The city’s record, he and others say, casts doubt on the dichotomy being drawn in the debate between family ties and other factors that might lead to economic success.

“The way that New York has come back is one of the great American success stories of the last 40 years, and immigrants are absolutely central to it,” Professor Gerstle said. “ Mom and pop stores in New York have been a very dynamic force in the making of American society, and I would not want to see that possibility foreclosed.”

Unlike the rest of the country, the city has experienced a plateau in its large and diversified flow of legal immigrants since a peak in the early 1990s. Its immigration accelerated in the 1970s through a classic pattern of daisy chain migration with “seed” immigrants sponsoring close relatives who eventually sponsored others. According to 2005 figures, the latest available, more than 72 percent of the city’s 102,545 legal immigrants admitted that year came through family ties, mostly as immediate kin of citizens, and only 11 percent through employer sponsorship; in the nation, 58 percent came through family-based visas, and 22 percent through employment.

Joseph Salvo, the city’s demographer, cautions that such numbers are an imperfect reflection of the scramble to find a way through the immigration maze, not a measure of New York’s family immigrants, who include large numbers of both the highly educated and the low-skilled. And he is confident, he said, that New York will remain a magnet.

To Jamal Hussain, 26, the Bangladesh-born owner of the deli at Delancey Street, it seems obvious that families, which can be banks and safety nets, are the foundation of success. He opened his deli with loans from relatives four years ago, and he points out that families also provide a screening mechanism and an incentive to succeed.

“They know I’m a hard worker, motivated,” said Mr. Hussain, who has repaid the loans, married, had a baby, and bought a house in the Bronx. “Kids are going to school, they’re being doctors, lawyers,” he added, citing a niece who is a graduate student in science at New York University. “Bottom line, instead of bringing those people already educated from over there, we have the opportunity to be homegrown Ph.D.’s.”

It is difficult to forecast the impact of the proposed changes on the mix and number of future immigrants, experts say. The bill aims to reduce legal migration in the future by eliminating family sponsorships outside the overall numbers set by government, and ending the diversity visa, which brings thousands of fresh “seed” immigrants by lottery to New York each year. But for the first eight years, it would grant family visa applications already in the pipeline, many stalled since the 1990s, when demand to sponsor foreign relatives far exceeded the numbers allowed in categories like sibling of a citizen.

Many people in the pipeline might no longer want to come, however; others are already here illegally. And if they overstayed temporary visas, like an estimated 40 percent of illegal immigrants, they would not qualify for legalization under the bill — unlike illegal immigrants who crossed the border surreptitiously.

“If it was just geared to skilled labor, New York would be in trouble,” said David Reimers, an emeritus immigration historian at N.Y.U. “Like all big cities, it depends on unskilled labor.” If family members are left out, he added, “they’re going to come in by hook or crook.”

For now, the proposed system grants up to 47 points for special occupations — to be determined later — and up to 28 for educational degrees. Only if a would-be immigrant scores at least 55 points would additional points be awarded for family ties: 8 to a citizen’s adult son or daughter, 6 to the adult child of a permanent resident, 4 to a citizen’s sibling.

Such a scheme could affect New York disproportionately because among states with the most foreign-born, it has the largest proportion of legal to illegal immigrants, demographers say. Some of the city’s immigrant groups, like Koreans, Indians and Filipinos, have such high rates of education and professional skill, however, that they could do well under a skills-based points system.

But Seung Jin Jung, 43, president of the board of the Young Korean American Education and Service Center in New York, said he and his two sisters would have flunked on points 20 years ago, after coming of age in South Korea during a seven-year wait for visas while their parents worked in New York. The children spoke no English and had no degrees when they arrived. Now he has his own import-export business; one sister is a music therapist, he said, and the other is a physical therapist — and both are working on their Ph.D.’s.

“The current proposed immigration change views the families of immigrants as an unnecessary burden,” Mr. Jung said. “That’s the wrong approach. Take a look at what’s going on in New York — once you are here with family members, you not only become part of the work force in this country, you become part of the social fabric.”

César González, 58, a Dominican immigrant whose family-run bookstore, Librería Caliope, is now a literary cultural center in Washington Heights, echoed the sentiment, noting that he and his brother José had little education when they were sponsored by an uncle and a sister. “It’s the same story for most of the people in the neighborhood,” he said. “Lots of them would be excluded. Only the well-to-do would qualify and people who already have an education.”

Mexicans, mostly unskilled and illegal immigrants, are the newest group to emerge as a large presence in the city, demographers say. They are now estimated to be among the city’s top three immigrant groups, joining Dominicans and Chinese, Mr. Salvo said, with about 350,000 in 2006, up from about 200,000 six years ago, including children born here. In dense and diverse city neighborhoods, they generally have been absorbed as just one more immigrant group, though in many communities in the metropolitan region, as elsewhere, conflict has erupted over their rapid settlement.

Peter H. Schuck, a Yale professor of immigration law who supports a points system to meet global competition, says most Americans do not want more immigration, and want to improve immigrants’ quality.

“We have a very valuable resource that we are distributing, and we ought to do it in full consciousness of what we want to absorb in the way of immigrants,” he said. “The country can’t simply throw up its hands and say, ‘We’ve done it this way for the past few generations, so we just should go on doing it.’ ”

But Professor Gerstle points out that immigrant families who helped populate the city over the last 40 years have become part of its lifeblood.

“They’re New Yorkers, aren’t they?” he asked. “A lot of Americans may think that’s not American, but it isn’t foreign.”