From the Latin American storefronts on Jackson Heights’ Roosevelt Avenue to the diverse array of Asian businesses clustered along Flushing’s Main Street, immigration is visibly woven into Queens’ commercial corridors.
But where exactly do immigrants fit into Queens’ economy and how have they left their mark?
Christian Gonzalez-Rivera, a senior researcher at New York City’s Center for an Urban Future, tried to answer the first part of that question with a study titled “Where Immigrant New Yorkers Go To Work.” The study looked at census data and broke down the percentage of foreign-born workers compared to native-born workers by profession
Immigrants are overrepresented in New York City’s workforce, accounting for 36 percent of the population, but 47 percent of workers, according to Gonzalez-Rivera. In Queens, there are more immigrants working as nurses, psychiatric and home health aides than in any other profession, with 20,000—approximately 79 percent of all nurses and aids in the borough. A total of 90 percent of all of Queens’ taxi cab drivers are immigrants, making it the profession with the highest percentage of foreign-born workers. Queens immigrants are also well represented as janitors, cashiers, housekeepers and construction workers. But for Gonzalez-Rivera, the most interesting part of the data is the number of immigrants citywide in high-skilled positions, such as life sciences.
“There’s a stereotype that immigrants tend to work in low-income jobs,” he said. “There are also many immigrants who work in very, very high level jobs—doctors, radiologists—especially in the life sciences.”
In New York City, for instance, 70 percent of workers in the medical and life sciences field are foreign born. Still, other high-skilled professions—media jobs, public relations specialists, lawyers—belong mostly to native-born workers. Some high-skilled professions are likely difficult for foreign-born workers to obtain due to language and education barriers and issues with getting education completed in other countries accredited in the United States, Gonzalez-Rivera said.
But immigrants don’t just participate in the labor force. Immigrant entrepreneurs help expand it.
Flushing, for instance, has grown tremendously as immigrant-owned small businesses have sprouted in droves. Since 1965, when the federal government revised its immigration policies to accept more immigrants, Flushing has boomed with more than 6,000 businesses—many of them started by recent immigrants. Today, it is the fourth largest business district in the city, according to John Choe, executive director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce.
“Flushing’s business community has changed overnight,” Choe said.
Shiv Dass is an immigrant-business owner in Jackson Heights who arrived from India in 1966 and started Krishna Jewelers in 1985 on 74th Street, a commercial corridor that exploded with predominantly south Asian businesses throughout the 1970s. Dass, who now serves as the president of the Jackson Heights Indian Merchants Association, said that the neighborhood was economically weaker before those businesses came.
“In 10 years, 100 stores on 74th Street, 90 percent became Indian,” he said. “People started spending money on 74th Street, the economy was improving.”
He acknowledged that this came with growing pains as locals felt threatened by the bourgeoning new population that replaced longtime business fixtures. But Dass argued that the area is now a bustling, “must-visit” locale in Queens and a center of south Asian culture.
A 2007 study by the Center for an Urban Future, titled “A World of Opportunity,” supports Dass’ assertions. The study aimed to show the effects of immigrant entrepreneurs on the city’s economy and found that, in 2000, despite accounting for 36 percent of the population, foreign-born individuals represented half of all self-employed workers in the city and almost 70 percent in Queens. Between 1994 and 2004, the number of new firms in Flushing, for instance, grew by 54.6 percent, compared to a citywide increase of 9.6 percent. Jackson Heights saw an increase of 14.3 percent.
And those businesses drive local job growth. While employment increased by 6.9 percent citywide between 1994 and 2004, it increased by 27.9 percent in Jackson Heights. Flushing saw a rise of 12.1 percent.
The rapid growth in those neighborhoods comes with some headaches, which Choe argues, need more attention. In Flushing, for instance, the business environment has attracted more investment, especially from foreign investors. That leads to bigger development that can threaten smaller businesses. And as Flushing grows and attracts more residents, there are serious questions as to whether the neighborhood’s infrastructure can keep up with its growth. Congestion, lack of parking and crowded public transit requires action from the city, Choe said.