Economics in the Immigration Debate: the Case of New York State

Tim Shenk and Krin Flahert

Editor’s Note: A link to the full version of this article as well as footnotes are available online.

Samuel Rios was one of 19 legal Mexican workers who were paid $1 an hour and made to work 16 to 18 hours a day by their employer at the New York State Fair last summer. Following an investigation, the vendor has been banned from this year’s Fair. Photo: Rebecca Fuentes

Economic interests have played a role in defining immigration issues since the first waves of European colonization of the Americas. 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.

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 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.

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.”1 Since the late 1800s, the US government has established a trajectory of immigration laws consistently favoring the European-American elite over more recent immigrants. 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.

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.2 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.3 They are employed heavily on dairy farms and apple orchards, isolated from family and community support, and “are regularly denied payment for their work.”4

After an undocumented worker was killed in a farm accident near Watertown, NY in April 2011 and the landowner was arrested, lawyers advised other area farmers to take measures such as “keeping workers and worker housing away from roads and prohibiting workers from going to town to buy groceries and make telephone calls.”5 These increased worker abuses ostensibly would allow farmers to lower their levels of accountability in payment and treatment of their immigrant workers.

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.6 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.7

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.  
A coalition of local activists connected with the Workers’ Rights Center helped uncover the case of immigrant abuse at the State Fair in 2010. Above they listen to the workers share their struggle. Photo: Rebecca Fuentes

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.8

Rochester, New York accounts for fully half of the 2,000 yearly immigration-related arrests at the US-Canadian border.9 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 a 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.10 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” (S-Comm), a term used to describe a system of sharing of information between local police and federal immigration enforcement, or ICE. Since the original publication of this article in March 2011, the number of New York counties where S-Comm is activated has doubled; almost half of the state has activated S-Comm.11  In the S-Comm 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. S-Comm deters immigrants who suffer domestic violence or other crimes from calling local police, for fear they will be arrested for immigration purposes.

Furthermore, S-Comm is costly to state and local governments: immigrants who are acquitted or have criminal charges dismissed can still be detained and deported. In fact, 60 percent of deportees under S-Comm have had no criminal convictions at all.12 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. Illinois recently became the first state to opt out of S-Comm, and advocates are pushing Governor Andrew Cuomo to have New York do the same.

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 beginning, 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 is one significant step in challenging those who benefit from immigrant labor.

Tim Shenk is the Coordinator of the Committee on US-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR) in Ithaca, New York. He is a member of the sociopolitical organization and organizing school, Justicia Global. Krin Flaherty is an attorney working in Ithaca, New York with low-income and immigrant populations