Our city of immigrants

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With the Trump administration’s hard line on immigration, stories of undocumented immigrants detained inhumanely have become commonplace. Evidence of racial profiling in enforcement actions has mounted.

The Trump presidency also has fed a growing anti-immigrant lexicon and driven deeper the partisan wedge. Currently, 57 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say that if the United States is too open to people from around the world, “we risk losing our identity as a nation,” a Pew Research report states.

Yet in Rochester and countless other places in this country, immigrants are inseparable from the community’s history and identity. And they could be an essential part of efforts to revitalize urban areas that have seen both people and jobs migrate elsewhere.

A few things stand in the way, however. Among them are lack of common understanding of how immigrants can strengthen communities and new Trump administration rules that strike at legal immigration.

Builders of a better future

Frank Novak, a partner with Harter Secrest & Emery, has more than two decades of experience in immigration law.

“The first so many years, when I would tell people what I do, they would always talk about Mexicans,” he recalls.

“Immigration is not about Mexicans; immigration is about a lot of people from a lot of different parts of the world,” Novak says. “If you want to compete against countries like China, you need to pull in talent. So, immigration is not about taking, it’s about building a strong, competitive future for the country.”

Immigrants since the days of John Jacob Bausch and Henry Lomb have been central figures in the development of Rochester’s economy. Some started businesses; others helped supply the labor force for Bausch & Lomb, Kodak and other companies in the growth years of Rochester’s manufacturing sector.

In 1870, when Rochester’s population ranked 22nd among U.S. cities, 34 percent of the city’s residents were foreign-born, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Rochester remained one of the top 25 U.S. cities through 1940, when more than 60,000 of its 324,975 residents—or 18.5 percent—were born in another country.

The turning point for Rochester’s population came at the midpoint of the 20th century. As the number of people living in the city steadily declined, so did immigrants as a share of the population. By 2010, Rochester’s population had fallen to 211,977—and the number of foreign-born residents had dropped to 17,281, just 8.2 percent of the total.

Another, more positive trend is evident in the most recent census data, however. The latest American Community Survey five-year estimates show the city’s population has edged up slightly—and immigrants have played the key role. From 2009 to 2017, the U.S.-born population in the city declined by roughly 700, but the foreign-born segment grew by more than 2,000, a 14 percent increase.

In the Rochester metropolitan area, the trend is similar. In the 2009-2017 period, the native population grew 4 percent, while the number of foreign-born residents increased 14 percent. Even so, immigrants here represent a much smaller segment of the population than they do statewide (23 percent) and in the nation as a whole (13 percent).

A 2008 policy brief from the UB Regional Institute at SUNY Buffalo noted that “in many aging cities, recent working-class immigrants have helped to reactivate and revitalize gateway neighborhoods, filling housing that might otherwise sit vacant and spurring investment—and making investments themselves—in long-neglected properties.”

The brief’s authors added: “As (Upstate New York)’s native population and workforce ages, immigrants at all skill levels will likely play a significant role in the region’s economy.”

In some parts of the upstate region, agencies and private firms have taken steps to attract refugees to stem population decline.

Novak is among those who believe that welcoming immigrants is in our own interest.

“If you think (immigrants are) takers, then you’re not going to have any of these people who are discoverers and entrepreneurs and builders of a better future for the Rochester area,” he says. “I think people in Rochester darn well ought to care about it because our area is getting older, our companies are having a tough time, we need to have people who are looking to build a better life. 

“And if people in Austin, Texas, are not moving up to Rochester, then maybe we can have people moving from Mumbai help build Rochester.”

A harder road

New federal policies could hinder efforts to increase the flow of immigrants to this region and nationwide. A few weeks ago, the Trump administration announced a final rule broadening the definition of a “public charge” to include immigrants who use one or more government programs outlined in the rule. 

Immigration officers now can deny an individual entry to the U.S. or decline to grant permanent residency if the candidate is likely to become a public charge. Officials are to consider factors including age, health, family status, education, skills, assets, resources, role as a caregiver, and whether the person is using or has used one or more of a set of public benefits in the last three years.

“The officer in each case has to look at (the factors) and make a determination whether, given the totality of the circumstances, they believe that that person is going to be self-supporting or not,” says Danielle Rizzo, partner and an immigration attorney at Harris Beach. “There’s guidance in the final rule about how they’re supposed to make those determinations and what factors are supposed to be given more weight than others, but it is absolutely a subjective determination.”

Many observers say the rule is likely to be misapplied. The Migration Policy  Institute predicts the population impacted by the new rule includes 10 million noncitizens—47 percent of the noncitizen population nationwide. These individuals live in families with 12 million U.S.-citizen family members—nearly two-thirds of them children—and chilling effects will extend to their citizen family members, MPI writes in a report. The new rule will fall particularly hard on the two largest racial/ethnic immigrant groups: Latinos and Asian American/Pacific Islanders.

Share of noncitizens whose benefits use could be considered in a public-charge determination, United States, California, and New York, (%), 2014-16

Experts expect families to disenroll and abstain from using government benefits. Members of mixed households—where citizens live with noncitizens—are eligible to use public programs.

“These are kids that are eligible to access those benefits if the family otherwise qualifies…,” Rizzo says. “That is something of public health significance if you have children that are not getting medical care that they need and that could be paid for because the family thinks that they shouldn’t access those benefits.”

Says Novak: “Some people live here for a long time, play by the rules, work hard and pay their taxes, and shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not it’s OK to seek some medical care for their child.”

New York and other states have sued to challenge the new rule.

Regardless, the decision ultimately rests with immigration officers, who wield more power than before. Last month, the Trump administration approved expedited removal of foreigners. The rule applies to individuals who are undocumented, committed fraud or who have not been physically present in the United States for two years before apprehension. The problem? The immigration officer making the decision has unbridled authority. Those detained can be deported immediately without due process, immigration attorneys say.

“There’s just all kinds of thorny issues surrounding how it’s going to be applied and the scariest part is that there’s just no review. So, if mistakes are made, even if they’re terrible mistakes, there’s not a lot of recourse,” Rizzo says. “I’m having conversations with people who are dealing with this and I think it’s terrifying. It’s creating a climate of fear among people, primarily people who are trying to do the right thing, and it shouldn’t be this way.”

Already, stories of legal immigrants being detained abound. One example: Francisco Galacia, an 18-year old U.S. citizen, was stopped at a checkpoint while traveling for a soccer scouting event in Texas. He only had a school ID on him, resulting in detention.

“To subject everybody who is a noncitizen and even citizens to this kind of terrifying scrutiny, it’s making the United states a very unwelcoming place for any immigrant,” Rizzo says.

An immigrant’s perspective

For me, this issue is personal. I came to this country from India more than two decades ago and I’ve built a life here. It’s hard for me to watch as legal immigrants are penalized for their presence in the U.S. It’s also hard to see undocumented immigrants be ill-treated.

While I don’t quite fall in the new public-charge rule’s categories, I feel for aging parents and siblings who have moved to be closer to family. 

Income and lines of credit are hard to come by for these new entrants, not to mention access to health care without employment (the administration calls that a heavy burden on the system). Recent foreign graduates seeking employment might not have enough resources either.

I know of many immigrants who have, as citizens, sponsored family members to come to the U.S. in order to care for them and be united after years of separation. 

Those who oppose reunification of families might ask immigrants: If you wanted to live together with your family, why did you leave where you come from? 

Many of us arrive here to receive an education, fully intending to return to our homelands. Then, life happens, and we buy into the American dream: home ownership, independence of thought, freedom of speech—all of it. We get culturally overhauled.

Most of us don’t have opportunities to speak our mind and walk in freedom in our home countries. Our societies and economies—if we are from Asia, Africa or Central America—are still developing. We come to learn, absorb, and a lot of times, we decide to stay.

Though it may seem like it’s an easy choice to make, given the prosperity and opportunity in this country, it is not. Immigrants must consciously decide to leave what they have known for most of their lives. 

We do so because is an honor to be part of this country, and to contribute to the world’s largest and most dynamic economy. We take this privilege very seriously and work to be active community members, in Rochester and elsewhere.

Many Rochesterians over the years have said to me, as one immigration rule followed another: “You don’t have anything to worry about. You came in legally. You’ll be fine.”

I probably will be, if I carry my passport with me at all times—without it, I could be subject to expedited removal if an immigration official decides it’s what should be done. 

Yet, I am not. 

I am unsettled. Diversity is the fabric of this nation. There’s enough data to show immigrants bring new perspectives, contribute to the economy and encourage all Americans to think in different ways, from research to commerce. 

Rizzo and Novak say it’s important to tell stories of immigrants who contribute to our community and highlight their strengths. 

At this point, I wonder: Will that be enough?

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. Executive Editor Paul Ericson contributed to this article.

One thought on “Our city of immigrants

  1. Anyone else notice that the word “illegal” does not appear once in this piece? You’d think that’d be important, given the fact that the Trump administration’s concerns are with illegal immigrants

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