William W. Ginsberg, president and CEO of the Community Foundation, said, “the origin and nationalities of the immigrants may have changed over the years, but the story is the same.”
Foreign-born residents have helped to revitalize previously-declining city neighborhoods by renting or investing in homes and creating small businesses. They contribute millions of dollars in property taxes to municipalities throughout the region, place great emphasis on their children’s education and contribute to the diversity and cultural richness of the community.
Ginsberg said immigrants – including the undocumented – are responsible for many of the things city residents are most proud of: its diversity, arts, culture and dining.
“It is not our understanding that immigrants don’t face obstacles and prejudice,” he said. “But I think this region has distinguished itself for being welcoming.”
The report, written by Mark Abraham and Mary Buchanan of DataHaven, a local nonprofit organization that compiles, shares and interprets public data to facilitate policy-making and community-building. They pulled together input from key stakeholders and the results of an online survey completed by nearly 600 foundation constituents, as well as information from numerous sources, including government agencies, to capture the many dimensions of immigration’s impact.
In surveying foundation constituents, the idea was not to scientifically measure public opinion on immigration, but rather to get a general picture of the range of attitudes, Ginsberg said.
Among survey respondents, 86 percent said that Connecticut was very or somewhat welcoming to immigrants. Many noted that local policies, assisting agencies and the attitudes of residents contribute to a more hospitable atmosphere in New Haven proper than in surrounding municipalities.
Only 31 percent of respondents thought they understood immigration policy extremely or fairly well.
Illegal immigration overestimated
A wide majority of those surveyed – 88 percent – overestimated the presence of undocumented immigrants in the state, guessing that they represent between 6 and 35 percent of the total population. Twelve percent correctly said that about 3.4 percent of Connecticut residents are undocumented immigrants, the report notes.
DataHaven estimates that 14,430 undocumented immigrants live in Greater New Haven.
Some respondents said they believed that immigrants, especially those who arrive without legal authorization, can disrupt the economy, traditional culture and school systems.
However, Abraham said research by the US Department of Homeland Security has found that the undocumented use the fewest government benefits of any residents.
Many Americans think it’s easy to become a citizen, he added. The report notes that, “the path to legal permanent residency is complicated, and most undocumented immigrants are either excluded from this process altogether or would be on a waiting list that lasts from 10 years to many decades.”
Sandra Trevino, executive director of Junta Inc., a New Haven-based nonprofit agency that provides services, programs and advocacy to the Latino community, said the debate on federal immigration policy misses the fact that the population of undocumented immigrants consists not only of Latinos but of people from many other parts of the world.
So much of the talk is focused on people sneaking across the Mexican border that there is a misunderstanding of the larger picture, Ginsberg added.
Lucas Codognolla, lead coordinator of Connecticut Students for a Dream, said, “a lot of the people in the community don’t understand how political this immigration thing really is,” with the lives of undocumented immigrants treated like they’re a game.
Nationally, 62 percent of undocumented immigrants have lived in the US for 10 years or longer, and most undocumented adults are employed, comprising a disproportionately large share of the labor force relative to their numbers, the report notes.
Besides addressing the misinformation and attitudes that cloud many people’s thinking on immigration, Ginsberg said people need to know that, “the things that we are proud of in this community apply equally to the undocumented as to other foreign-born residents.” The region benefits from the presence of immigrants, regardless of their legal status, he said.
In the absence of federal immigration reform, the report cites efforts to integrate undocumented residents such as the state’s new drive-only license program and the availability of in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities to undocumented residents. Since 2007, New Haven has made the Elm City Resident Card available to undocumented residents, providing legal identification and protection from robbery and assault.
Immigration is essential to Greater New Haven’s success, and the foundation is committed to promoting immigrants’ integration into the community, Ginsberg said. “We’re going to continue to do outreach and education regarding the value of the immigrant community.”
The foundation will also work to comply with President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration and team with nonprofit service providers to remove obstacles to housing and employment.
Growth is essential to the health of any community, and immigration has been driving New Haven’s population growth – making it the state’s fastest growing city since 2000 — at a time when the native-born population declined, the report notes. From 2000 to 2012, the city experienced a net gain of 6,272 residents; it lost 1,025 native-born residents but gained 7,297 foreign-born residents.
In the same period, Greater New Haven’s population increased by more than 27,000 people, of which about 75 percent were born outside the US. The greatest increases in numerical terms were attributable to immigration from Mexico, India, China, Jamaica and Ecuador, according to the report. The populations of persons from Guayana, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Thailand and Middle and East African nations appear to be growing most rapidly in proportion to the size of previously-existing immigrant communities from those areas.
In Connecticut as a whole, those identifying themselves as Hispanic or Latino make up 13 percent of the total population of 3.57 million, 11 percent of the native-born population of nearly 3.1 million and 26 percent of the foreign-born population of about 482,000.
In Greater New Haven, Latinos were 12 percent of the total population of 638,627, 10 percent of the 563,957 native-born and 26 percent of the 74,670 foreign-born residents.
The percentages of Latinos were higher in the City of New Haven: 26 percent of all 129,898 city residents; 24 percent of the 108,251 native-born residents; and 39 percent of all 21,647 foreign-born residents.
Still, the Latino presence is not uniformly distributed across the city. In a survey of businesses located in Downtown New Haven’s Ninth Square neighborhood, DataHaven found that 3 percent were owned by immigrants or children of immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America.
Most represented among the remaining business owners were the native-born, 47 percent; Asians, 26 percent; and Europeans, 15 percent.
Asked whether the small number of businesses owned by Latinos in the area had to do with their socioeconomic status or acceptance, Ginsberg said factors, such as access to capital, might explain the numbers, but added, “it’s not just about barriers.
“If you drive down Grand Avenue in Fair Haven, it is block after block of Latino businesses,” he said. The small number of such businesses in the Ninth Square may be because there are better opportunities elsewhere for Latino business owners, and there may be no area comparable to Grand Avenue for Asian business owners, he added.
Wherever they set up shop, immigrants help sustain the nation’s small business sector, representing 18 percent of small business owners despite being just 13 percent of the population, according to the report. Small businesses improve neighborhood vitality, brighten the streetscape and offer services; immigrant-owned businesses may offer products not otherwise available and help establish a neighborhood’s reputation for cultural diversity.
A 2007 study found that 23,409 businesses – 7 percent of all businesses– in Connecticut were owned by immigrants.
Culture and diversity
Immigrants bring with them their own traditions, in areas such as cuisine, music, art, dance, language and literature. Besides owning businesses, they create new organizations, “and sponsor or participate in festivals that serve as cultural outlets for the entire community,” according to the report.
Immigrants to Greater New Haven are more racially diverse than the native-born population. In the foreign-born population, more than one in three people identify as Asian or Hispanic, while one in 17 identify as white, the report said.
A smaller percentage of immigrants (7 percent) than native-born residents (24 percent) in the region are less than 18 years old. The largest group of foreign-born residents – 48 percent in the state, 66 percent in New Haven and 51 percent regionally – are in the 18-44 age range.
Foreign-born area residents are more likely to be employed than the native-born. However, on average, immigrants have lower annual individual incomes, and are less likely to have earned a high school degree than native-born residents. “But immigrants in Greater New Haven are also more likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree, indicating a distinction between high-skill and low-skill immigrants,” the report says.
“Immigrants may be limited in their work opportunities compared to native-born people, even taking into account legal status, skill level, and origin,” with many deemed ineligible for positions they could hold in their native countries because their education or credentials don’t transfer to the US job market, the report notes. Low-skilled immigrants may take physically demanding jobs that are largely unfilled by native-born workers. Undocumented immigrants are at high risk for labor law abuse, such as wage theft.
Housing and health
Naturalized citizens are more likely to own homes than native-born residents, researchers found.
“Lower rates of homeownership among non-citizens are in part due to their shorter length of residency in the US; however, immigrant renters represent ‘a large reservoir of potential future homeownership demand,'” the report says, citing a study published last year by Fannie Mae.
“Foreign-born residents often revitalize neighborhoods that are otherwise experiencing population loss, occupying housing units as homeowners or as renters. In older cities and suburbs, a lower neighborhood vacancy rate can have local benefits, including lower crime rates, higher property values, and fewer maintenance costs to local government,” the report says.
In New Haven’s Edgewood, West River, Fair Haven and Hill neighborhoods, the foreign-born population has rebounded sharply since 1990, the report says.
Immigrants contribute tens of millions of more dollars to the US healthcare system through payroll taxes than are taken out in the form of benefits. In 2009, immigrants made 15 percent of all contributions to the national Medicare Trust Fund, but were responsible for only 8 percent of its expenditures.
Nationally, immigrants have been found to live longer, have healthier babies and have far fewer mental health issues than native-born residents. Depending on their socioeconomic status and other factors, many immigrants living in Greater New Haven face the same barriers to good health that affect the community more broadly, including the lack of health insurance or affordable care, literacy-related barriers and gaps in access to physical activity, nutritious food and healthy home and work environments.