On the Move
Immigrants an economic force in the suburbs
Immigrants in general are doing “quite well” economically in Westchester and surrounding suburban counties, according to a recent profile of immigrants in the state economy.
Yet while faring better here than their counterparts in New York City, foreign-born residents still trail their generally affluent suburban neighbors in income and education levels, the Fiscal Policy Institute reported in its study, “Working for a Better Life.”
A leader in Westchester’s Hispanic business community said while immigrants’ lifestyles have improved here, there remains “a big drop-off” in their numbers in upper management and corporate board rooms. That needs to change, she said.
The Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research and education organization focusing on tax, budget and economic issues in the state, prepared the report as part of a joint project, The Truth about Immigrants, with the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella policy and advocacy organization representing more than 200 groups that work with immigrants and refugees.
Four million immigrants live in New York state, representing 21 percent of the population, the study found. Of that total, 3 million immigrants live in New York City, making up 30 percent of its population.
Diversity in the Suburbs
In the increasingly diversified downstate suburbs, which include Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Nassau and Suffolk counties, immigrants account for 18 percent of the region’s 740,000 residents. In Westchester, where some 229,000 foreign-born residents were counted in 2005, one out of four residents is an immigrant, the largest percentage among downstate suburbs.
Though Hispanics make up the largest group here, at 37 percent of the foreign-born population, immigration to the downstate suburbs is far more diverse. Of foreign-born residents, 31 percent are white, with Italy the second most common country of origin after El Salvador, while 17 percent are Asian and 13 percent black. Fourteen percent of immigrants in the suburbs came to the U.S in the last five years, while 57 percent have been here 15 years or more.
Fiscal Policy Institute analysts estimated there are 130,000 undocumented immigrants on Long Island and in Westchester County combined, about 21 percent of the immigrant population in the three countries. Most of those undocumented immigrants, 71 percent, come from Mexico, Central America and South America.
Outside the metropolitan region, 340,000 immigrants represent only 5 percent of the upstate population. Though small in number, those immigrants have virtually the same median family income as U.S.-born residents.
An Economic Force
Immigrants are vital to the state economy, producing $229 billion in economic output, or 22.4 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, the Fiscal Policy Institute reported. That GDP share is slightly larger than immigrants’ share of population though lower than their 26 percent share of the statewide work force.
In Westchester and surrounding counties, immigrants make up 23 percent of the labor force, while their share of wage and salary income in the region is 20 percent. The median income for a family with at least one immigrant adult is $71,000, compared to $86,000 for suburban families without a foreign-born adult.
Though their income levels are far higher than those of foreign-born residents of New York City, immigrants in the suburbs tend to be a step below U.S.-born residents at each income level, the study found. At the higher income levels, for example, 43 percent of people in immigrant families have family income above $80,000, compared to 53 percent for people in non-immigrant families.
Suburban immigrants also generally earn lower wages than U.S.-born workers at the same level of educational attainment – about $2 per hour or 20 percent less in median wage for workers with less than a high school education. As education levels rise, the wage gap shrinks here, though immigrants with a college education still make 8 percent less than U.S.-born suburbanites.
By the Numbers
The report noted that undocumented immigrant workers make up only an estimated 2 percent of the overall labor force of the suburbs and upstate combined. An estimated 9 percent of construction workers and 5 percent of service and manufacturing workers are undocumented.
In this region, registered nurses make up the largest number of immigrant workers, 15,000, or 29 percent of that occupation in the suburbs. Foreign-born workers hold a large share of lower-income service and construction jobs here, accounting for 82 percent of maids and housekeeping cleaners, 71 percent of painters, 63 percent of production workers, 58 percent of grounds maintenance workers and of cooks, 49 percent of construction laborers, 46 percent of health care aides, 45 percent of food service managers and 43 percent of janitors and building cleaners.
Among professions, immigrants represent 41 percent of physicians and surgeons, 28 percent of professors, 22 percent of accountants and auditors and 19 percent of financial managers in the suburbs.
Though the report said there is no direct measure of immigrant business ownership and entrepreneurship for the downstate suburbs, Hispanic-owned and Asian-owned businesses have boomed here in the last 15 years. The number of Hispanic firms in the region increased by more than half from 1992 to 2002 while their employee numbers grew by 31 percent, while Asian firms more than doubled in number in the same decade with 4 percent growth in employment.
‘Not there yet’
Fannie Lansch, a banker who manages the $600 million construction loan portfolio at Union State Bank and president of the Westchester Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the report’s findings generally matched what she has observed in the county.
“We’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of improvements in lifestyles among immigrants,” said Lansch, a fashion model and fashion design student in her native Dominican Republic who studied financial management and entered the banking profession here. Regarding the income gap for both immigrants and women at all occupational levels, “I think we’re catching up over time, but we’re not there yet,” she said.
Especially for the first generation in immigrant families, “Just because you’re highly educated doesn’t mean you work at that level” in the United States, she said. Often those immigrants have stayed in jobs they found upon arrival rather than qualify to practice the profession for which they were trained, she said.
In banking and the professions in the county, Hispanic immigrants are “not as many as I’d like to see,” she said. Employment in management is “not as strong as it is at the lower levels of the service industry.
“They are increasing, but there’s a big drop-off at the higher levels of management. A lot of companies don’t practice what they preach. They talk about diversity. They advertise diversity. But that’s not seen in the board room,” she said.
“To me that’s one of the most important things,” said the chamber president. “That’s what I try to push for. I want more equality in upper-management corporate America.”