Illegal immigration to New York City

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There are thought to be over half a million undocumented immigrants in New York City. They come from many parts of the world, especially Latin America, Asia and the Caribbean. About 70% of them have paid work, in catering, construction, retail, driving, cleaning and many other trades; at least in catering, their wages tend to be lower than those of comparable workers. However, provision of healthcare, education and welfare benefits, in addition to law enforcement, imposes a net cost on public funds. City regulations restrict public officials and police officers from enquiring about immigration status of residents with whom they come into contact.

Profile and demographics[edit]

According to a study by the Fiscal Policy Institute, about 4.08 million immigrants lived in New York State in 2007,[1] and according to the Migration Policy Institute, about 4.47 million immigrants lived in the state in 2014.[2] Of the immigrants in the state, about three million live in New York City.[1] The number of immigrants living in New York City increased only slightly from 2000 to 2011, with an increase from 2,871,032 to 3,066,599 residents being born outside the United States.[3]:10

A 2007 report by Fiscal Policy Institute estimated there are 535,000 undocumented immigrants in New York City.[1] In all, undocumented immigrants make up 18 percent of all immigrants living in New York City.[1] Undocumented immigrants in New York City come from a wide array of countries from all over the globe. According to an estimate by Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center, 27 percent of undocumented immigrants in New York City come from Mexico and Central America, 23 percent come from South Asia and East Asia, 22 percent come from the Caribbean, 13 percent come from South America, eight percent come from Europe, five percent come from Africa, and two percent come from the Middle East.[4]

Participation in labor force[edit]

Although undocumented immigrants do not have legal permanent status in New York City, they have a significant presence in the city’s economy and job market. As former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg explained, “Although [undocumented immigrants] broke the law by illegally crossing our borders or over-staying their visas and our businesses broke the law by employing them, our city’s economy would be a shell of itself had they not, and it would collapse if they were deported”.[5][6] According to a Fiscal Policy Institute analysis of 2000 to 2006 data, there are 374,000 undocumented immigrant workers in New York City, which makes up 10 percent of the resident workforce.[1] With 374,000 out of 535,000 undocumented immigrants working in New York City, undocumented immigrants have a labor force participation rate of roughly 70 percent. This percentage is higher than the labor force participation rate for native-born residents, 60 percent, or for overall foreign-born residents, 64 percent, in New York City.[1]

Undocumented immigrants can be found working in almost every industry in New York City performing a wide variety of tasks. More than half of all dishwashers in the city are undocumented immigrants, as are a third of all sewing machine operators, painters, cooks, construction laborers, and food preparation workers. Undocumented immigrants also make up close to 30 percent of the city’s automotive service technicians and mechanics, waiters, maids and housekeeping cleaners, and carpenters. The five occupations with the most undocumented immigrant workers in New York City are cooks (21,000), janitors and building cleaners (19,000), construction laborers (17,000), maids and housekeeping cleaners (16,000), and waiters (15,000).[1]

Occupation[1] Number (estimate) As proportion of all workers
Dishwashers 11,000 54%
Sewing machine operators 12,000 35%
Painters, construction & maintenance 7,000 33%
Cooks 21,000 33%
Construction laborers 17,000 32%
Food preparation workers 6,000 32%
Waiters & waitresses 15,000 28%
Maids & housekeeping cleaners 16,000 28%
Automotive service technicians & mechanics 5,000 26%
Carpenters 20,000 50%
Taxi drivers & chauffeurs 11,000 20%
Stock clerks & order fillers 7,000 19%
Janitors & building cleaners 19,000 19%
Laborers & freight, stock & material movers 6,000 16%
Driver/sales workers & truck drivers 9,000 15%
Cashiers 10,000 12%
Retail salespersons 10,000 12%
Child care workers 7,000 12%
Office clerks, general 5,000 12%
First-line supervisors of retail sales workers 8,000 10%
Other occupations 163,000 6%
Total Undocumented labor force 374,000 10%

Restaurant industry[edit]

The restaurant industry may be the industry that employs the most undocumented immigrants. In 2007, 36 percent of restaurant workers were undocumented immigrants.[1] According to a 2008 estimate from the Pew Hispanic Center, about 20 percent of the nearly 2.6 million chefs, head cooks and cooks in the United States are undocumented immigrants.[7] According to a 2005 report by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York and the New York City Restaurant Industry Coalition, undocumented immigrant workers in the restaurant industry in New York City receive substantially lower wages than legal workers. According to the report, the median wage of all restaurant workers in the city was $8.00 an hour. However, when undocumented immigrant workers’ earnings were taken out of the sample, the median wage rose to $9.00 an hour.[8] A Manhattan chef and restaurateur explained, “We always, always hire the undocumented workers… It’s not just me, it’s everybody in the industry. First, they are willing to do the work. Second, they are willing to learn. Third, they are not paid as well. It’s an economic decision. It’s less expensive to hire an undocumented person”.[7]

Mexican immigrants[edit]

According to an analysis of the most recently available census data, Mexican immigrants have the highest rate of employment among the city’s 10 largest immigrant groups, and they are more likely to hold jobs than New York City’s native-born population. Based on the 2008 census data, about 75 percent of all Mexicans in the city between ages 16 and 65 are in the civilian labor force and only around four percent of them are unemployed, which is well below the nation’s current unemployment rate of 9.6%.[9] Experts say the main reason so many of these immigrants are employed is because they are undocumented, and, consequently, they are less likely to report workplace abuses to the authorities for fear of deportation. As a result, many of these workers hold jobs that pay less than the minimum wage and require them to work 100-hour work weeks.[9]

Social and fiscal impacts[edit]


In 1996, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani stated: "The reality is that [undocumented immigrants] are here, and they're going to remain here. The choice becomes for a city what do you do? Allow them to stay on the streets or allow them to be educated? The preferred choice from the point of view of New York City is to be educated".[10]

Law enforcement[edit]

Although the New York City Police Department (NYPD) does not check immigration status when undocumented immigrants seek medical attention or education services, it does check the immigration status of anyone who commits a crime.[5]


In October 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (ICRA), which authorized legalization for undocumented immigrants who could prove they had resided in the U.S. continually, although without appropriate documentation, since January 1, 1982.[11]

Mayor Bloomberg explained, “Our general policy in this area protects the confidentiality of law-abiding immigrants, regardless of their status, when they report a crime or visit a hospital or send their children to school”.[5] In New York State, undocumented immigrants cannot get a driver's license. However, they can pay the same tuition rates to attend a New York state university or other public university.[12] New York state supports the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive actions taken by Barack Obama, which allowed about four million unauthorized immigrants to receive work permits and be protected from deportation.[12][13]

On September 17, 2003, Bloomberg issued Executive Order 41 to protect the privacy of undocumented immigrants and to grant them access to City services that they need and are entitled to receive. According to Executive Order 41, if an undocumented immigrant goes to a City agency to request certain services or benefits, City employees will not ask about his immigration status unless it is required by law or necessary to determine whether he is eligible to receive those services or benefits. Furthermore, if an undocumented immigrant is the victim or witness of a crime, or if he calls or approaches the police seeking assistance, police officers will not inquire about his immigration status.[14][1][15][9]

In January 2017, President Donald Trump enacted a new executive order that would allow undocumented immigrants nationwide to be deported on lesser charges than previously. Over the week of February 6, 2017, six hundred people in 11 states, including 41 people in the New York City area, were arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The ICE stated that of those arrested in the New York City area, 95% of those arrested were "criminal aliens."[16] Specifically, of the 41 arrested, 38 had at least one criminal conviction.[17] The New York City raids had been planned since January and focused mainly on people who immigrated illegally from Central American countries.[18] The ICE had arrested more undocumented immigrants in the New York metropolitan area in previous raids, including 58 in an August 2016 raid.[19] However, the new ICE raids under Trump's presidency represented an increased enforcement of immigration policy, including detaining and potentially deporting 8 million of the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.[20] As a result, after the February raids, there were reports of increases in people looking for free legal help from immigrant-rights law firms. The NYPD said that it was not involved in the raids.[16] ICE arrested a further 104 people in the New York area in July 2017.[21]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Working for a Better Life: A Profile of Immigrants in the New York State Economy" (PDF). Fiscal Policy Institute. 2007. 
  2. ^ "State Demographics Data - NY". Retrieved 2017-02-01. 
  3. ^ Bloomberg, Michael R.; Burden, Amanda M.; Shama, Fatima (2013). The Newest New Yorkers (PDF) (2013 ed.). New York City Department of City Planning. 
  4. ^ Passel, Jeffrey S; Cohn, D'Vera (November 18, 2014). "Unauthorized Immigrant Totals Rise in 7 States, Fall in 14: Decline in Those From Mexico Fuels Most State Decreases" (PDF). Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project. Washington, D.C. 
  5. ^ a b c "Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Examining the Need for a Guest Worker Program". United States Congress Committee on the Judiciary United States Senate. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. 2006. 
  6. ^ "Bloomberg: New York City Will Collapse Without Illegal Immigrants". Fox News. 2006-07-05. Retrieved 2017-01-31. 
  7. ^ a b Immigration Crackdown Steps Into the Kitchen.
  8. ^ Kharbanda, Remy; Ritchie, Andrea (25 January 2005). "Behind the Kitchen Door: Pervasive Inequality in New York City's Thriving Restaurant Industry" (PDF). Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) and the New York City Restaurant Industry C. 
  9. ^ a b c Semple, Kirk (2010-09-23). "Mexican New Yorkers Are Steady Force in Workplace". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-01-31. 
  10. ^ Romney: Giuliani's NYC 'Sanctuary' for Illegal Immigrants.
  11. ^ Foner, Nancy (2001). New Immigrants in New York. New Immigrants in New York. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-12414-0. Retrieved 2017-01-31. 
  12. ^ a b Park, Haeyoun (2015-03-29). "Which States Make Life Easier or Harder for Illegal Immigrants". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-02-01. 
  13. ^ Meckler, Laura; Nelson, Colleen McCain; Morath, Eric (2014-11-21). "Obama to Protect 4 Million-Plus Immigrants From Deportation". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 2017-02-01. 
  14. ^ Executive Order 41, C.F.R. (PDF), 2003 
  15. ^ "Immigration Crackdown Steps Into the Kitchen". The New York Times. 8 September 2010. Retrieved 31 January 2017. 
  16. ^ a b Sandoval, Edgar; Blau, Reuven; Brown, Stephen Rex (2017-02-13). "NYC immigrant communities shaken after federal raids". NY Daily News. Retrieved 2017-02-13. 
  17. ^ "Details of 41 arrested during illegal immigrant raids released". ABC7 New York. 2017-02-17. Retrieved 2017-02-17. 
  18. ^ Robbins, Liz; Dickerson, Caitlin (2017-02-12). "Immigration Agents Arrest 600 People Across U.S. in One Week". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-02-13. 
  19. ^ "ICE arrests 58 in New York enforcement operation targeting convicted criminals". Retrieved 2017-02-13. 
  20. ^ Bennett, Brian. "Not just 'bad hombres': Trump is targeting up to 8 million people for deportation". Retrieved 2017-02-13. 
  21. ^ "ICE arrests 114 in New York operation targeting fugitives, illegal immigrants". Fox News. 2017-07-26. Retrieved 2017-10-21. 


  • Ciment, James, ed. "New York City." Encyclopedia of American Immigration. Vol. 3. Armonk, NY: M.E Sharpe, 2001.
  • Krase, Jerome, and Ray Hutchison. Race and Ethnicity in New York City. Vol. 7. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Ltd, 2004.

Further reading[edit]

  • Tapper, Jake, and Ron Claiborne. "Romney: Giuliani's NYC 'Sanctuary' for Illegal Immigrants."
  • Passel, Jeffrey S. Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S. Pew Hispanic Center. Rep. no. 61.