Immigration has been a defining feature of New York City since the 19th century, and its influence on the city's politics has been immense. From the influx of immigrants in the mid-19th century to the current debates over how to manage the influx of migrants to New York City and its suburbs, immigration has been a major factor in shaping the city's political landscape. This essay examines how American cities that have a long and continuous history of absorbing immigrants develop reception, institutions, and policies that are welcoming to current immigrants and their children. Immigrants were a major part of 19th century New York life.
They were essential in the evolution of political parties and machines and drastically changed the social composition of the city's neighborhoods. This influx of people put pressure on sanitation, housing, and public institutions, leading to calls for reform from private citizens and experts alike. In 19th century New York City, “the newcomer was at the center of public life.” Today, New York City is a hub of demographic diversity that is transforming the nation. Traditional doors welcome newcomers with institutions, political cultures, and social expectations about the role of immigrants different from those of new destinations.
Cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, and New York have been cities of entry for many previous waves of immigrants and are still absorbing new immigrants today. They are more likely than other New York residents their age to have grown up in the city (many “young native New Yorkers” are, in fact, newcomers from other parts of the United States) and often identify strongly with the city's culture and institutions. Immigration is also an important factor in current debates over how to manage the influx of migrants to New York City and its suburbs. Mayor Bill de Blasio recently asked the White House to authorize a former military base in New York City as a center for asylum seekers, while his Democratic colleagues have signaled his inaction.
At the same time, Democrats and Republicans from Congress to local county officials have been arguing about how to manage this influx. The boldest statement of this stance was probably Irving Kristol's 1966 New York Times essay, “Today's Negro is Like Yesterday's Immigrant.” The office of Mayor de Blasio has taken steps to ensure that immigrants are welcomed in New York City. Executive Orders 34 and 31 guarantee “privacy” for immigrants who request municipal services and instruct municipal workers to protect the confidentiality of any information about immigration status they obtain about individuals. After arriving at the port of New York, Irish immigrants were evaluated at the Staten Island Marine Hospital before disembarking in New York City.
At the same time, thirty-one states have passed some type of law requiring government affairs to be conducted in English, while New York is doing everything it can to accommodate half of its population who speak a language other than English at home as well as 1.8 million people who have limited English proficiency. Pat Ryan received advice by message from Mayor de Blasio who won over progressive mayoral contenders with his stance on public safety. Immigration in New York is a palimpsest in which the life opportunities of today's newcomers are determined by a story that they are often barely aware of. Advocates argue that these migrants are needed in part to help address the current labor shortage.
Thus, in Los Angeles for example when new immigrants adopted political styles created in part by the struggles of the long-standing Mexican-American community issues were often articulated as Mexicans against Anglos; the history of immigrants was a source of conflict not a shared tradition or a common origin. The Biden administration has also taken steps to ease some of the pressure on immigration policy. Programs implemented by Biden and Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas such as expanding opportunities for people in Latin America to meet their families in the United States have eased some of this pressure. Immigration has been an integral part of New York City since its inception and continues to shape its politics today.
From 19th century calls for reform to current debates over how to manage migrants coming into New York City and its suburbs, immigration has been an important factor in shaping both its past and present.