Economics in the immigration debate: the case of New York State

by Tim Shenk and Krin Flaherty

Economic interests have played a role in defining immigration issues in the Americas since the first waves of European colonization. Profit was the key motive for bringing indentured Europeans and enslaved Africans to the American continent in the first place. In this article we first highlight the historical origins of immigration in the state of New York, revealing the economic motivations for controlling the movement of people within the capitalist project. We then describe some of the current laws, inequalities and struggles for immigrants in the “border state” of New York.

With this article we attempt to contribute to the analysis and debate on immigration at the Forum on Migrants and Borders taking place in Costa Rica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic from March 15-17, 2011.

New York: a profit-driven corporate venture from its founding

In the debate on immigration in New York State, it is necessary to consider the historical roots of New York as a colony meant to make money for a few at the expense of many. If our goal is to foment relationships based on human rights, we must ask in whose interest it is that human rights are violated. That is, a key question is who benefits economically from the exclusionary, bureaucratic, inhumane immigration policy, as it stands now.

European immigration to the Americas is often framed as a search for freedom: freedom of religion and freedom from tyranny. Though this was true for a few groups, such as the Puritans and the Quakers, most European involvement in the Americas had much more to do with the freedom to accumulate and exploit. The colony of New Amsterdam, later New York City, now the largest and most influential city in the United States, was from the beginning a profit-driven, corporate venture. Therefore, it should be no surprise that economic factors are still primary in the debate on immigration, trumping arguments based on human rights and morality.

Official history of New York State describes building democracy in a land of equal opportunity, a state that welcomed “tired, poor, huddled masses” of immigrants.

Yet since New York’s beginnings, the emerging ruling class has consistently governed for their own personal profit. In 1653, the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, declared: “We derive our authority from God and the West India Company, not from the pleasure of a few ignorant subjects.”[i]

A little more than a century later, the first US Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, argued against democratic decision-making in favor of the political and economic rule of the moneyed elite:

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government.[ii]

Since the late 1800s, the US government has established a trajectory of immigration laws that has consistently favored Hamilton’s “first class” over immigrants themselves. Though national quotas and directly discriminatory legislation have been reformed, US immigration law has increasingly selected for the kinds of legal (and illegal) immigrants most beneficial to the economy.

Immigration laws continue to be driven by economic motives. Some celebrated the Immigration Act of 1990 as a step forward for immigrant families, as 70 percent of the 700,000 visas awarded per year now pursue family reunification.[iii] However, far from altruistic, the family reunification focus assures that all legal responsibility for an immigrant’s wellbeing will remain with family members, not with the receding welfare state. Immigrants can contribute to the economy through work but are unable to draw on any of the social services their taxes pay for.

Many industries profit from the tenuous conditions of unauthorized immigrants in New York State. In rural areas, the $5 billion agriculture industry in the state draws significantly from immigrant laborers from Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica. Some of these workers participate in the H-2A temporary work visa program for agricultural workers, but a majority of the 65,000 to 75,000 migrant workers in rural New York are undocumented.[iv] They are employed heavily on dairy farms and apple orchards, isolated from family and community support, and “are regularly denied payment for their work.”[v]

The economies of upstate cities and towns benefit by detaining undocumented immigrants in local prisons. The prison population is factored in when allocating per-capita state and federal funding, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) pays a higher daily rate for housing prisoners than the state penal system, which means that municipal prisons welcome and encourage the detainment of immigrants.[vi] In addition, informal economic activity springs up around undocumented immigrant communities. Some immigrants pay up to $1,000 to be driven to a court date in another city, in order to avoid public buses where they might be harassed by immigration officers.[vii]

Downstate and in New York City, industries such as food service and restaurants, construction and manufacturing benefit from low-wage, non-union immigrant labor: “‘Illegal immigrants are very convenient,’ said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute. ‘Employers are quite interested in employing people who are willing to work and to overlook some labor laws.’”[viii] Though these industries wouldn’t support xenophobic cries to “send illegals home,” they also form a staunch opposition to a “path to legalization” proposed by many immigrant rights groups.

Besides its treatment of immigrants within its own borders, New York City is also the intellectual birthplace of many policies and programs that cripple other countries’ economies and impoverish its people, forcing increased emigration. US Free Trade Agreements and World Bank-style development programs require “opening markets” to subsidized US products, causing the failure of family farms and mass migration of rural populations to cities or to the US.

While human-rights-based arguments are necessary for mobilization and empowerment of people for change, the study of immigration is incomplete without a hard look at the economic relationships that uphold unjust policies and laws.

New York State as a border state

The recent expansion of the jurisdiction of the US Customs and Border Protection to 100 miles from any national border or coastline defines New York as a strategic “border state.” While much discussion on immigration rightly takes place around the US-Mexico border, New York State is home to 4.2 million immigrants who face many of the same injustices and perils as immigrants in the US Southwest. In New York, it is less common for immigrants to arrive undocumented from Central America or the Caribbean, as some perceptions would have it. In New York, 90 percent of unauthorized immigrants arrived legally and have overstayed their visas.[ix]

Rochester, New York, a city of 220,000 residents on Lake Ontario, accounts for fully half of the 2,000 yearly immigration-related arrests at the U.S.-Canadian border.[x] Once an entry point into the United States via ferry, Rochester is now located more than 70 miles from the nearest land-based border. Yet the city still houses an aggressive Border Patrol unit of 40 agents, which now combs buses and trains for those traveling without proper documentation. Targets can include undocumented laborers, lawful permanent residents who are not traveling with their green card, as well as students and professors of the many universities and colleges in the area. None cross a border at Rochester, but Customs and Border Protection has jurisdiction to identify immigrants with suspect status for detention.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the newly defined border region is a de facto “Constitution-free zone” where Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure do not apply.[xi] Further, a person charged with the civil crime of being inside US borders without authorization is not granted the rights guaranteed to criminal detainees. Immigrant detainees carry the burden of proving lawful immigration status without state-provided legal counsel, a task which is difficult behind bars and with limited contact to the outside.

In addition to an uptick in immigration investigation in the border region, the government has created “Secure Communities,” a term used to describe a system of sharing of information between local police and federal immigration enforcement, or ICE. Presently, Secure Communities is in effect in most of the counties surrounding New York City and in two counties in western New York, but not in the city itself.[xii]

In the Secure Communities program, when a person is arrested in her local area, her fingerprints are transmitted to a federal agency that verifies immigration status and criminal history. If there is an issue with an arrestee’s immigration status, the person can be held for immigration purposes, even if no criminal charges are pressed. Immigrant advocates are concerned that this program could encourage local police to target arrests in immigrant communities as a backdoor method of immigration enforcement. Secure Communities deters immigrants who suffer domestic violence or other crimes from calling local police, for fear they will be arrested for immigration purposes.

Furthermore, Secure Communities is costly to state and local governments. Under Secure Communities, immigrants who are acquitted or have the underlying criminal charges dismissed can still be detained and deported. The program’s protocol directs that immigration enforcement priority is to target  immigrants with convictions of certain serious crimes. However, in practice thus far, 60 percent have had no criminal convictions at all.[xiii] Until the immigrant is transferred to immigration custody, the expense and responsibility of holding her falls to the state. According to Cardozo Law School estimates, New York State has spent $4.5 million on holding immigrants for immigration, and New York City recently paid $145,000 in damages to lawful permanent residents and US citizens who were wrongfully deported under Secure Communities. Undoubtedly, lawmakers have looked at these same arguments, and yet wasteful and community damaging programs are still in effect. This begs the question of who stands to gain and where is the benefit in these policies. These are some of the reasons we advocate against Secure Communities, a policy that actually makes our communities less secure.

Comparing experiences of immigration

The majority of immigrants affected by new enforcement mechanisms, such as increased border patrol and “Secure Communities,” are the poor and least able to afford legal counsel. Even legal immigration can create unease among poor and working-class immigrants. For example, an individual who is likely to become a “public charge” is unable to come to the United States as a lawful permanent resident. A public charge is someone likely to be primarily dependent on the government for subsistence or institutionalized at the government’s expense.[xiv] However, beyond proving that the immigrant would not become a public charge, the immigration process has built in further hurdles to create uncertainty for immigrants.

For example, Rolando has worked under lawful status and paid taxes in the US for many years. At the time he is eligible for residency, he has cancer and could not likely support himself without government assistance like Medicaid. Rolando must first prove he will not become a “public charge,” meaning he is not likely to be dependent on the government. As a separate obligation, Rolando must have a sponsor who is willing to sign a binding contract with the US government that he or she will support this man at 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

By signing the contract, the sponsor swears that if Rolando draws from public benefits, the sponsor could be responsible for repaying the government for his use of benefits. This contract creates a significant hurdle for low-income immigrants because few are willing to take on such an obligation. However, without a sponsor, Rolando cannot obtain legal permanent residency, which is the only pathway to citizenship. If after this, Rolando is granted residency, he is not permitted to draw from public benefits (including Medicaid, except for emergency treatment) for five years after his admission. During each of these steps, many immigrants feel as vulnerable as they were before obtaining lawful status or residency.

Immigration to New York for the affluent is a much different scenario. In stark contrast to the image of poor pregnant women crossing the US border to give birth to confer US citizenship to their children, an industry of “birth tourism” caters to wealthy families. Travel agents abroad offer a “birth package” with flights and first-class accommodations in Manhattan hotels for expectant mothers, for an all-inclusive price around $45,000.[xv] New York City, the nerve center of international capital and finance, welcomes immigrants from the professional, propertied classes invested in New York’s far-reaching economy. H1B visas are designed specifically for companies who can certify that they have openings for professionals and technicians in specialized fields where no qualified US workers exist.


Nearly 400 years ago, New York was founded as a for-profit venture of the Dutch East India Company. A few made fortunes and enriched the European elite at the expense of native populations, slaves, indentured servants and the immigrant working poor. Today, though victories by social movements and organized labor have blunted some of the outright barbarity of the exploitative system, the same basic rules are still underlying.  Today, as since its beginnings, New York state does not provide a place for the “huddled masses” to “breathe free.”  Instead, immigrants are kept in fear of being detained, deported and separated from their families, and this fear creates the conditions for their exploitation.

It is important to analyze the economic interests driving the immigration debate, as this gives a truer picture of the struggle for justice and human rights. In this context, overcoming fear and isolation, one objective of the Forum on Migrations and Borders, is one significant step in challenging those who benefit from immigrant labor.

[i] Ellis, David M, et al. 1957. A short history of New York state. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. p.18.

[ii] Zinn, Howard. 2005 A People’s History of the United States, 1492 to Present. New York: HarperPerennial. p.95.

[iii] United States Congress. “Immigration Act of 1990.” Public Law No: 101-649, November 29, 1990.

[iv] Dudley, Mary Jo. 2011. “Borders North and South.” Presentation at Conference “Youth, identity and transnational flows.” March 5. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

[v] Valenzuela et al, 2006, in Mize, Ronald and Alicia C.S. Swords. 2010. “Consuming Mexican Labor: From the Bracero Program to NAFTA.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

[vi] Dudley, 2011.

[vii] Dudley, 2011.

[viii] Semple, Kirk. 2010. “Mexican New Yorkers are Steady Force in Workplace.” The New York Times. Sept. 22.

[ix] Foner, Nancy. 2000. From Ellis Island to JFK. New York: Russell Sage.

[x] Bernstein, Nina. 2010. “Border Sweeps in North Reach Miles Into U.S.” The New York Times. Aug. 29.

[xi] Ritz-Deutch, Ute. 2011. “Immigrant Detention and Deportation: A Year in Review.” Presentation at Cornell University, Feb. 23.

[xii] Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 2011. “Activated Jurisdictions.”

[xiii] Ritz-Deutch, 2011.

[xiv] United States Congress. Immigration and Nationality Act. 212 (a)(4).

[xv] Gutiérrez, Sonia. 2011. “Birth Tourists and Anchor Babies: Birthright Citizenship, Race Politics and the Media.” Presentation at Conference “Youth, identity and transnational flows.” March 5. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

7 Respuestas a “Economics in the immigration debate: the case of New York State

  1. Nice angle on this complicated issue. It’s so important to get past the moralistic arguments that everyone’s making and get to the meat of things, that is why are our laws still so bad if we know they are bad? somebody’s making a bunch of money off it!!

  2. what i don’t get is why we keep believing our lawmakers when they say their going to get immigration reform done or whatever else. we elect the ‘good guys’ and then sit on our ass and wait for them to do nothing.

  3. They aren’t just doing nothing! bethany! they all follow a very clear and coherent line whether they are democrats or republiccans. cuomo here in new york is cutting education, cutting public housing, cutting benefits, laying off public sector workers… across the board attacks on workers and imigrants. we’d have it good if they were doing nothing.. this is much worse!

  4. david, i see your point, i just meant they aren’t doing what they promised theyd do!

  5. good article I just think you paint a very bleak picture. what do you propose we DO about this?

  6. well, you have to know what you’re up against first. if we take Shenk and Flaherty seriously, what do we DO? we study history and economics to get a sense of how deep and wide this shit goes. then we go after its roots in private property and individualism, the “your way, right away” mentality in our culture. we take a page from Ella Baker and start training committed leaders, start up where others have left off in building a MOVEMENT.

  7. On June 1, 2011 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended Secure Communities in the state because he said they were not reaching the stated objectives of deporting serious criminals.

    This decision is the result of lots of hard work all around the state on the part of immigrants, organizations and civil rights groups!

    Now we just have to keep the pressure on to definitively rescind S-Comm in New York and all other states!


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