Regardless of our current spite towards the globalized world, America still needs immigrants. In recent efforts, Philanthropy New York addressed this challenge. During a webinar on human migration to the United States, with a specific focus on New York City, panelists discussed the vitality of the movement. Kyung Yoon, Philanthropy New York’s Chairman and President of the Korean American Community Foundation (KAFC), began the conference with a conscious reminder: “today we are thinking about the globe, as we reflect on movement around the world; we don’t want to ever lose sight that under the numbers and statistics, immigrants are people with stories.” Continuing with a philanthropic seminar, and a panel discussion teeming with subliminal scholars, Philanthropy New York placed a sincere message at its core — immigrants are not a burden, but an asset, and ultimately essential to the American economy. This is in part due to their innate courage and resilience; yet their future is jeopardized in the wake of the pandemic. Polarization of politics and the strengthening of national borders subvert the equitable promise of immigration. The muddled prospect following the pandemic, including policies targeting migration, climate change, and societal rebound, must be guided by humanity and dignity.
Cristina Jiménez, Executive Director and Co-Founder of United We Dream, led the humanitarian symposium. As an organization, United We Dream is the largest immigrant youth-led effort in the country. Jiménez is one in a large majority, as 70% of the company’s leaders are women. Born in the capital of Ecuador, she moved to Queens, New York in her teens, where she was a part of an undocumented working-class family. Her relief was found in one which most take for granted — the opportunity to hold jobs, have food on the table, and attend school. Growing up in a diverse neighborhood in New York City, members of Jiménez’s family were victims of job exploitation and police brutality. The fear of deportation hung like a knife over their heads—a fear only exacerbated after the attacks of 9/11. Jiménez declared immigrants “a living and breathing testament to resilience,” admitting that her own story was reflective of many of the members she now meets through United We Dream.
“The issue of undocumented people is not isolated to the US,” Jiménez said, noting how migration and the challenge of policy are not local, but global phenomena. Climate change and economic disparity mean that ever more people are on the move: The UN International Office of Immigration estimates 1.5 billion to be displaced by 2050 due to environmental devastation and climate change. But society seems to be asking the wrong questions. We think in divisive terms, and discredit environmental refugees and economic migrants. Even the idea that each country should build an army or task force to keep immigrants out of their borders does not meet the demands of a highly global phenomenon. Jiménez strove to enlighten the webinar’s audience with “[the] awakening of people who are stateless are on the rise and the inspiration of millions to reclaim their humanities is growing.”
To meet modern human migration, Jiménez strongly believes in community organization. “The key to building power and creating change” she said, “is that the people closest to the pain are [the people] closest to the solution.” United We Dream aims to protect their youth from the hostile trauma of deportation. The idea that “the people closest to the pain are closest to. . . . innovations and breakthroughs,” is reflective not just in immigration movements, but those of gun control and sexual assault. Well-known examples include the campaign led by Parkland High School students for tighter gun restrictions, the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements of sexual assault survivors, and formerly incarcerated peoples “leading the fight” to reinstate voting rights. Jiménez noted that “methods of massive change transcend issue areas because the human experience does not exist in one issue silo.” While citizenship is an important milestone within the process of immigration, it does not prevent incarceration nor disparity of health care.
The issues that immigrant communities face are not isolated, but resonate throughout their communities. Jiménez boldly stated that, “ICE and border control are the most powerful armed units in this country. We do not see them as ‘immigration enforcement,’ we see them as they are.” She observed that the task force seems to operate on a “racist-political ideology.” Jiménez continued, “today, immigration enforcement takes more dollars than any other federal enforcement combined.” They demand access to nearly every federal database and use “facial recognition software to have the ability to detain and separate families.” When people get to detention, they are held for months without trial nor legal support; “The truth is probably worse than what we are seeing in the media.” She further discussed the recently confirmed deaths in detention camps following an outbreak of COVID-19. Immigrant workers, forced to work shoulder to shoulder, are particularly susceptible to infection. Across the country, as those struggling receive stimulus checks, the packages provided by the government specifically exclude tax-paying immigrants.
The webinar didn’t focus on the next form of legislation, but rather a comprehensive vision, and what it will take to rebuild from COVID-19. In their terms, everyone must be included in a vision of safety and equity towards societal reform, regardless of immigration status. Details were discussed in the panel portion of the conference, introduced by Taryn Higashi, the Executive Director of Unbound Philanthropy and moderated by Pat Swann, of The New York Community Trust.
Muzaffar Chishti, the Director of the Migration Policy Institute office at NYU School of Law, discussed the narrative policy of immigration in America. Focussing on the rhetoric surrounding COVID-19, Chisti expanded to circle a few of Jiménez’s aforementioned arguments. Chishti noted that “nothing has humanized immigration like COVID-19 has,” and that “immigrants are disproportionately at the frontlines of this fight against the pandemic. . . . [and] devastated by the economic downfall.” A vast amount of immigrants work in the hospitals as health care workers, or in the agricultural system, processing or delivering food. Other common occupations held by immigrants include hotel staff, janitorial services, restaurants, and elder and child care, each of which are exceptionally impacted by the virus. Chishti further pondered the fact that immigrant populations are disproportionately contracting the virus; not only due to their locations in major hotspots like New York City, but their inability to social distance in places of work, such as meat packing plants and crowded warehouses. Nine million immigrants contribute to America’s skyrocketing unemployment rate, thereby left without healthcare and ineligible to obtain public coverage. 15.4 million non-citizens are excluded from the government issued stimulus packages; 1.2 million of those people are New York state residents. These numbers reveal the “fault lines of our immigration system,” illustrating the corrupted narrative and policies at hand.
“For the first time in our history,” Chisti pointed out, “we have elected a president who used the calling card of immigration issues to get elected.” And Trump has kept and delivered on his promises, seeing to the shutdown and the asylum regime at the border. Chishti continued, “for a nation of immigrants—for the ultimate nation of immigrants—we have always been ambivalent about immigration.” Before 1921, the country lacked any quantitative limits on immigration. From 1965 onwards, as the level of immigration increased, the face of America changed. However, 75% of immigrants prior to 1965 were European, and 80% of immigrants today are non-European; “It took the country exactly 50 years to come to terms with the 1965 law in the form of Trump.” Chishti noted that today, one-quarter of immigrants in the country are unauthorized — a historic fact in and of itself.
Chishti paused to pose the question: how has a country with a hesitant stance on unauthorized immigration become so reliant on it? Firstly, American fertility rates are going down. The US represents an aging society; by 2030, all 18 million baby boomers will be over the age of 65. To support this, society needs active, young workers upholding the social security system that it has come to rely on. The American education system is also at play. 85% of American citizens graduate high school, leaving the classroom with dreams of higher education and a life untethered by the informal labor market. As legal channels are unable to meet supply and demand, illegal channels bridge the gap. Immigrants are increasingly employed in the American labor market, but realistically, only 7% of immigration streams are based on the country’s economic necessity. since “the structure of our immigration system is based on the 1965 architecture.” To create an equitable system is to increase employment-based immigration, yet fundamental changes must be made to the archaic immigration system, with legislation dating back to the 1960s. Chishti proposed the integration of a bridge visa, one which allows people to preside in the country while they apply for a second visa, to control illegal immigration in a humane way.
Becca Heller, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), believes that “everyone should have a safe place to call home and a safe way to get there.” She, too, pointed out that the legal definition of a refugee has not been updated since the 1960s. She argued that the legal rights-based approach will protect society from the political whims of leaders if certain guarantees of safety and due-process are made. Heller decided against sharing a multitude of hard statistics, as she doesn’t adhere to the notion of categorizing people. Per data collected by the United Nations, there are approximately 7 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. The word ‘forcibly’ is integral: it means that those 7 million did not have a choice but to leave their homes, their livelihoods, and in some cases, their families. How powerful must that force must be to create such a situation, and how powerful must the person be to persevere? Heller likened the idea behind this question to both citizens and non-citizens who have been separated or displaced due to COVID-19. It’s worth remembering that immigrants and asylum seekers are incredibly resilient; they take on an arduous journey, gambling everything for a tenacious hope that they can start over with a safer life. Such a spirit would be extraordinarily helpful in re-envisioning a post-COVID-19 world. “We should be competing for refugees,” encouraged Heller.
In terms of the pandemic, Heller noted that “people who were vulnerable before COVID-19 will be even more vulnerable after COVID-19.” The US has only admitted 2 asylum seekers since the virus hit, a troubling statistic when compared to previous years. Immigrants have been politically absent, as there is little voting power among their communities; most recently, they have been scapegoated for COVID-19. However, the illness is community spread, not migrant spread, and now society is facing vector spreading. The chance for the virus to spread within ICE detention centers and prisons is enormous. In reality, these detention centers create clusters of COVID-19, only to dispose of them to other countries. Discrimination against immigrants is literally spreading the virus internationally, instead of making anybody safer.
Climate change is another factor of immigration, and further calls for systematic reform. As the climate worsens, millions around the world will have to leave their homes: due to disease, agricultural failure, water contamination, or drought. Despite this ill-fated reality, there is no such thing as an ‘environmental refugee.’ Without a legal framework, the United States will be unable to handle this sheer inevitability. Legal interventions must be made before the country is overwhelmed, rather than retroactively claim ignorance. Heller argued that with or without militarized borders, America needs a legal system that allows people to move safely, with dignity and equity. It would benefit every person to increase legal pathways to allow for the free movement of people.
Joe Salvo, Chief Demographer of NYC Department of City Planning, discussed New York City’s current situation in regards to pandemic and the population. He reported that some immigrant neighborhoods are doing relatively well because of their community organizing compared to non-immigrant neighborhoods—the same tactic that Jiménez encouraged. Salvo revealed that since 2016, America has experienced a decline in NET international migration by 46%. Now, the nation is at 43%. Since New York City is a major destination spot, it is a very serious moment for the city since so many elements are dependent on immigrants. Because of declines in immigration, natural increase (births over deaths) is declining in it’s impact. This means that fewer people are being born while there are more people who are dying. Coupled with reduction in immigrants, the underlying conclusion is that the city’s population is declining. Salvo said, “immigration is impacting our ability to sustain our neighborhoods and boroughs. . . . the flow into the city is what maintains the housing, keeps businesses invigorating, creates the vitality and the dynamic of the city’s population.” The injection of young people into the workforce is important to manage it, which is exactly what immigration to New York City does. Salvo made a dire warning in that “without immigration, cities will become shells of themselves. . . . cities would implode.”
Chishti concluded by noting the dual necessity of philanthropy: to address both the immediate and the existential. Society ultimately needs to provide services, legal, social, and academic, to combat this growing issue. He stated, “none of us choose the lives we live in. COVID-19. . . . we didn’t realize it was going to be one of the most important moments in our lives. It is. But we shouldn’t lose the moment. And we at least have to take stock in each of our lives, whether we are philanthropists, whether we are scholars, or activists, to see how best we perform our own role in this moment.” Human movement and migration is as old as humanity itself, and countries themselves were built upon this notion. To uphold the sanctity of the country, and to be practical in regards to it’s vitality and continuance, systematic immigration reform is essential.