STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — For years, while the rest of the city teemed with immigrants from across the world, Staten Island remained a bastion of native New Yorkers and first- and second-generation Europeans.
Not any more.
The Island has the fastest growing immigrant population in the city – a population that has grown by 41 percent since the last Census in 2000, and more than doubled since the 1990 Census. At least one-fifth of all current Islanders were born outside the United States.
These newest Islanders — who come from Mexico, Italy, China, Ukraine and Russia — are profoundly transforming the borough like no other time in its history. And a hot-button debate over how the country should deal with this latest wave of immigrants will ultimately decide exactly how that transformation will continue.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg will discuss his campaign for comprehensive immigration reform in his State of the City Address this week. He plans to make it a lynchpin of his third term, assembling a broad, bipartisan coalition to focus on the issue just as he did with illegal guns during his second term.
According to the mayor’s aides, the campaign will focus on four policy aims: Reducing incentives for employers to hire illegal workers; increasing visa quotas for skilled workers and laborers; more effective border control and security; and finding a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 12 million immigrants — about 500,000 in New York City — who live in the country illegally.
There are few topics more controversial than granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. Those in opposition say it is simply unfair to reward people for breaking the law, when so many others have come to the country through legal channels. Others claim that adding millions of low-skilled workers would severely drain government welfare services.
Several rent studies refute that claim, however, concluding these new citizens would add billions in additional tax revenue and consumer spending, help create hundreds of thousands of jobs and, theoretically, raise the "wage floor" for all workers. An amnesty program would also allow the government to shift more of its resources to anti-terrorism.
One study, released this week by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, found immigrants comprised 43 percent of the city’s workforce and accounted for $215 billion, or 32 percent, of the city’s economic activity. The 10 city neighborhoods with the greatest concentration of immigrants had stronger economic growth than the rest of the city between 2000 and 2007.
The study also found immigrants make up the majority of workers in personal services, construction, leisure and hospitality, and manufacturing, and half of the workers in health and social services.
That holds true on the Island’s North Shore, where many immigrants work as day laborers, nurses and nannies. Just as the comptroller’s study found, the Island’s immigrant population has shown a penchant for entrepreneurship – such as the Mexican community, which has helped to bring an economic revival to Port Richmond, and the Russian community in South Beach.
"The newest residents of the borough may come from different countries than their counterparts in other parts of the city, but they come to the Island for the same reasons," said Javier Valdes, deputy director of Make the Road New York, a Port Richmond-based immigrant advocacy group.
"They are looking for jobs, a safe place to live, and good schools for their kids. They are committed to the Island the same way as any other residents," Valdes said.
Valdes’ organization is part of a coalition of 16 Island groups pressing the city’s congressional delegation to make an immigration reform bill a priority this year – a campaign that was kicked off Thursday with a rally on the steps of borough hall. They want Rep. Michael McMahon (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn) to take a leading role in shaping immigration policies.
McMahon said he is concentrating his efforts elsewhere.
"Currently, my focus is on jobs and reducing our unemployment rate and deficit. Congress tackled so much last year with much success, but I believe that our priority should be getting people in our country back to work, plain and simple," he said, when asked by the Advance about his position on the issue.
But the pressure to take a stance on immigration reform will continue to mount for McMahon, who faces a re-election this November in a district that is not only ethnically, but politically diverse.
Many observers feel immigration reform will be a tougher political battle than health care reform. If focus groups are any indication, the issue of amnesty will prove to be the biggest dilemma, according to David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the Immigration Research Initiative for the Fiscal Policy Institute in Manhattan.
"At the beginning of the conversation, they are upset that the country allowed illegal immigration to continue for so long. But then it turns to — ‘What are we going to do about it now?’" Kallick said. "No one is prepared to say, ‘Let’s just deport 12 million people and then we can start again.’"
Even immigrants in the borough fall on either side of the issue. Arkadiy Fridman, a Russian community leader and president of the Staten Island Community Center in South Beach, fears granting amnesty to illegal immigrants would set a bad precedent.
"I am not against immigrants, of course. I am against people taking advantage of the system. You have to wait in line like everyone else. You have to pay your taxes, do whatever you have to do to earn citizenship," said Fridman.
Fridman was on a waiting list in his native Ukraine for four years before he was granted refugee status from the United States 14 years ago. His master’s degree in civil engineering was not valid here, so he worked menial jobs to support his family. He now has a son in New Dorp High School and his daughter is a student in SUNY Albany.
Unlike Fridman, thousands of others came to the Island without the government consent because they couldn’t qualify for refugee or any other status, but were desperate for the same opportunities, Valdes added. They, too, contribute to the borough.
"My sense is that through all this, Staten Island is going to come out winning," Valdes said. "The borough will see the economic benefit, and more diversity. And that’s not a bad thing."