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Data Debunks Insidious Myths About Immigration

Nov. 1, 2021, 8:01 AM

Tune into some conservative cable news stations on any given evening and you’ll be warned that caravans of refugees are ravaging border towns, leaving chaos and crime in their wake, and that neighborhoods are being overrun with immigrants, crowding out other residents and taking scarce employment opportunities.

As absurd and off-base as these claims may seem, the harm they do is quite tangible. They stoke fear and prejudice, forestall economic mobility, and interfere with the fulfillment of personal aspirations.

Two years ago, the Rockefeller Institute of Government, New York State Bar Association, and the Government Law Center at Albany Law School decided to test suppositions and invited 30 academics, statisticians, demographers, and others to assemble and analyze the data. Their findings have been collected in a new book, “Immigration: Key to the Future—the Benefits of Resettlement to upstate New York.”

Why the Top Three Myths Are False

Let’s take the top three myths about immigrants in upstate or northern New York one by one.

1. ‘Immigrants Strain the Safety Net and Take Precious Jobs’

The data is clear: Refugees pay taxes, rebuild housing stock, open stores, and fill open jobs, offsetting the demographic and economic decline in low-income, rural New York communities.

In upstate New York, as defined in our book as New York state excluding New York City, Long Island, Westchester, and Rockland counties, immigrant households had more than $10.3 billion in spending power after taxes, representing 7% of all spending power in upstate New York—well more than their share of the population for the region.

Immigrants in upstate New York appear to be more entrepreneurial than their native-born counterparts. In 2018, more than 8% of all business owners and entrepreneurs in upstate New York were immigrants—disproportionately higher than their percentage of the population.

2. ‘Immigrants Bring Crime With Them’

Between 1980 and 2016, the immigrant population in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and Utica grew, while crime rates during the same period dropped.

This phenomenon holds true in most localities with increasing immigrant populations throughout our nation. Indeed, research reflects that even undocumented immigrants are half as likely to be arrested for violent crime as U.S.-born citizens, according to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA .

3. ‘America No Longer Needs Immigrants’

The truth that New York faces is that a combination of an aging work force, baby boomer retirements, declining birth rates and outward migration of long-term residents imperils the future of smaller communities nationwide. This void continues to be filled by immigrants who as a group serve as an important engine to our future stability and economic welfare.

The numbers bear this out. Immigrants added an estimated $2 trillion to the domestic GDP in 2016 is estimated that mass deportation of unauthorized immigrants would cost the states billions in lost taxes and productivity. California would lose an estimated $103 billion, Texas $60 billion, New York $40 billion, and New Jersey $26 billion, according to The Center for American Progress.

Writing the Book on Immigration

The book we produced begins with an anomaly. New York State is a cultural and political mosaic. Downstate is left of center; upstate is less populated and often more conservative.

Against this backdrop, the federal government, which determines where resettlement occurs, directed that 6% of all refugees admitted to the U.S. since 2002 be resettled in New York State (third in the nation only slightly behind California and Arizona) and of that number 90% be resettled in upstate New York.

Cynics said introducing thousands of refugees into upstate communities would be a combustible combination. Indeed, they were correct, combustion followed, but in a form that infused localities with the energy of new investment, culture, and commerce.

Yet cynicism lingered, how could small cities and communities in upstate New York benefit from Afghans, Bangladeshis, Bhutanese, Bosnians, Burmese, Guyanese, Jamaican, Syrians, Iraqis, Jamaicans, Somalis, Indians, Asians, Russians, and South and Central Americans, among others?

These economically depressed towns and cities came to life with new culture, new business, and newly revitalized neighborhoods.

In the end, the experts found that although myths are stubborn and stain the fabric of our nation, by continuing to draw attention to empirical data we can undermine unfounded views and reinforce the importance of societal diversity.

Without immigrants and refugees, the New York we know today never would have been. And without a flow of new immigrants and refugees, New York will not sustain, it will not continue to live up to its motto “Excelsior,” ever upward!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Scott Fein is editor-in-chief of Immigration: Key to the Future and a fellow and senior adviser to the Rockefeller Institute of Government’s Center for Law and Policy Solutions. He is a partner at Whiteman Osterman & Hanna LLP in Albany, N.Y., and served formerly as a prosecutor and assistant counsel to New York Govs. Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo.

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