March/April 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 3

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Looking forward to the 2013 ASA Annual Meeting

New York: A City Transformed
by Immigration

Nancy Foner, Hunter College and the Graduate Center
of the City University of New York

After nearly half a century of massive inflows, New York is a truly immigrant city. About one out of three New Yorkers is now foreign born. Adding the U.S.-born second generation, the figure is more than one out of two or about 4.5 million people.

lady liberty

Given the numbers, it is not surprising that immigration has had an impact on virtually every aspect of New York life. Not only is it a major factor fueling population growth, but the millions of new New Yorkers and their children also have been changing the sights, sounds, and tastes of the city and influencing a wide range of institutions and communities.

New York owes its extraordinary diversity to immigration, attracting large numbers from Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and European countries as well. Not one, two, three, or even four groups dominate. In 2010, the top three groups made up under a third of all immigrant New Yorkers—even the top 10 were just over half (Dominicans, Chinese, Mexicans, Jamaicans, Guyanese, Ecuadorians, Haitians, Trinidadians, Indians, and Russians, in descending order).

The new demographic realities have affected the city’s racial and ethnic make up. The proportion of Asians and Hispanics has mushroomed, while whites have been steadily declining. Between 1980 and 2010, non-Hispanic whites went from 52 to 33 percent of New York City’s population, Hispanics from 20 to 29 percent, Asians from 3 to 13 percent, and non-Hispanic blacks, with an infusion of West Indian and, more recently, African immigrants, held fairly steady at 24 percent in 1980 and 23 percent in 2010.


“As immigrants have entered
the economy, they have changed
the ethnic division of labor.
If you hail a taxi, your driver is
likely to be South Asian; if you are
a patient in a hospital, it is a good
bet that the nursing aide will be
West Indian; the vendor at the
corner fruit and vegetable stand
is from Bangladesh. ”

The more than doubling of the immigrant population since 1970 has given rise to dense ethnic neighborhoods in every borough. The city boasts three Chinatowns, West Indian Brooklyn, and a Dominican colony in upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights, and ethnic settlements have multiplied in the last decade. More Dominicans now live in the Bronx than in Manhattan, and Queens and Brooklyn have supplanted Manhattan’s Chinatown as the most popular destinations for Chinese immigrants. Although Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach (or “Little Odessa”) remains an emotional and cultural home for Russian Jews, they have also spread to nearby neighborhoods, and a community of central Asian Jews—“Queensistan”—flourishes in Forest Hills and Rego Park. Smaller immigrant groups have established clusters like “Little Liberia” on the northern end of Staten Island, with its own outdoor African market.

There are also many polyethnic neighborhoods that are amalgams from all over the world. In fact, Queens is the most ethnically and racially diverse county in the United States. Elmhurst, a Queens neighborhood, is an ethnic mélange with large numbers of Chinese, Colombians, Koreans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Asian Indians, Dominicans, and Ecuadorians. Astoria, once a predominantly Italian and Greek neighborhood, has attracted many Bangladeshis, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, and Middle Easterners, among others, thereby becoming another ethnic stew.

Work and Education

pr parade

National Puerto Rican Day Parade

As immigrants have entered the economy, they have changed the ethnic division of labor. If you hail a taxi, your driver is likely to be South Asian; if you are a patient in a hospital, it is a good bet that the nursing aide will be West Indian; the vendor at the corner fruit and vegetable stand is from Bangladesh. Nearly half of all small business owners living in New York City are immigrants, making up 90 percent of owners of dry cleaners and laundries, 84 percent of small grocery store owners, and 70 percent of beauty salon owners in the New York metropolitan area. Korean nail salons are everywhere. In fact, nail salons and dry cleaners are now the two major Korean businesses in the New York metropolitan area.

The surge of immigration has led to huge increases in public school enrollment—now over the 1 million mark—with the majority of students being immigrants or children of immigrants. In one Queens elementary school, nearly 80 percent of the incoming students arrived speaking no English; among them, the children in the school spoke 36 languages. In 2010–11, about 154,000 students in New York City’s public schools were classified as English language learners (not proficient in English), with 168 home languages represented among them; Spanish was the home language for almost two-thirds, while a quarter spoke Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, and other dialects), Bengali, Arabic, Haitian Creole, Russian, or Urdu.

Mainstream cultural institutions have also responded to the huge number of immigrants. The dozens of public library branches offer a growing number of books, DVDs, and CDs in many languages. In 2012, non-English titles made up 12 percent of items on the stacks of the 62-branch Queens library system, which had large collections in Spanish and Chinese as well as Korean, Russian, French, Hindi, Italian, and Bengali. New museums have sprouted up to spotlight the history or arts of Asian and Latino groups. Two notable additions are the Museum of the Chinese in America in lower Manhattan, founded in 1980 and moved in 2009 to a building designed by the architect Maya Lin, and El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, created in 1969 to focus on the Puerto Rican diaspora but since changed to include all Latin Americans and Puerto Ricans in the United States.

Culture and Politics

Immigrants have broadened New Yorkers’ tastes with new cuisines and foods and have added new music styles and forms, from Jamaican reggae and dance hall to Dominican merengue. The ethnic media are flourishing. By one count in 2001, nearly 200 magazines and newspapers were publishing in 36 languages. New ethnic parades and festivals represent practically every immigrant group in the city. The largest is the West Indian American Day Parade, which attracts between 1 and 2 million people every Labor Day on Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway and has become a mandatory campaign stop for politicians seeking citywide office.

Ethnic politics has taken new twists and turns as more immigrants and the U.S.-born second generation are going to the polls. Although they have yet to enter the city’s political leadership proportionate to their numbers, immigrant-origin candidates have won seats in the city council, the state assembly and senate, and the U.S. Congress. In 2008, Yvette Clark, the New York-born daughter of Jamaican immigrants, was elected to Congress and in 2012, Grace Meng, a second-generation Taiwanese American, became New York City’s first Asian-American member of Congress. Also noteworthy was the 2009 election of John Liu, a 1.5 generation (born in Taiwan but grew up in the United States) immigrant, as comptroller, the second-highest elected office in the city.

If these are some ways immigration has transformed New York, this is not the end of the story, and we can expect additional changes in the years ahead as fresh immigrant recruits keep arriving and a huge second—and soon large third—generation come of age and leave their own stamp on America’s quintessential immigrant city.

Nancy Foner is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and editor of One Out of Three: Immigrant New York in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia University Press, 2013).

Annual Meeting News: Mark Your Calendar

  • The 2013 preliminary online program schedule will go live on the Annual Meeting website on April 30. The program will be searchable by participant name, session title, or individual presentation title. No program scheduling information is available in advance of that date.
  • Full preregistration for all events and services will be available at the end of April. At that time, members will be able to sign up for Seminars and Courses, Tours, the Employment Service, the Child Care Service, Chairs Conference, Directors of Graduate Study Conference, and the MFP and TEF Benefit Receptions. Preregistration closes July 10.
  • Deadlines for Program participants. May 15 is the deadline to preregister for the meeting to maintain your listing in the Final Program. Any changes to session listings for the Final Program must be received by Meeting Services ( no later than June 1.

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