November 20, 2007

Immigrants Flock To Upstate Towns

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Whenever Prof. Susan Christopherson, city and regional planning, gets into a cab in New York City, she tends to make conversation with the driver. To her surprise, the drivers, mostly originating from other countries, often speak of leaving the City for quieter locales and possibly settling upstate. This is becoming less obscure an aspiration, as many foreign-born citizens are migrating to the cities of Upstate New York.
A recently released study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York says that a huge influx of foreign-born workers — over 200,000 in all — live in upstate metropolitan areas like Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and Albany. Many of these residents are highly educated and tend to be attracted by jobs in technical fields.
According to the study conducted in 2000, more than half of foreign-born workers over the age of 25 were employed in either manufacturing, healthcare and social assistance or educational services.
The research suggests that not only are these immigrants chalking up population numbers in a region characterized by emigration, but they also help the economy by occupying a lot of the jobs that would otherwise be left unfilled. Foreign-born workers tend to take jobs relating to quantitative and scientific knowledge, whereas native-born workers tend to work in areas that require English fluency and knowledge of local culture.However, according to Christopherson, the extent to which these two groups cohabitate is not so simple.
“It’s a thorny problem,” she said. “If you say ‘I am going to advertise to fill my jobs with [foreign-born] workers,’ and that becomes public, people will ask why those jobs aren’t going to [native-born] workers.”
Prof. Douglas Gurak, development sociology, added that when the number of H1B visas granted to educated immigrants to do technical work in the United States was increased recently, many engineers protested, saying that the entrance of these new immigrants would take jobs away from the native-born population.
Prof. David Brown, developmental sociology, said that these highly-educated immigrants undeniably have an impact on the upstate economy, though the influence varies by region.
“Rochester [has the biggest impact] since it has both net in-migration internally and from abroad,” he said.
Gurak cautions that while this demographic contributes to the economy, there is also a substantial emigration of foreign-born workers as well. Because New York is often a first stop for people coming from abroad, people tend to migrate to other regions of the United States after settling in New York.
A study that Gurak published with fellow Prof. Mary Kritz, developmental sociology, entitled, “Immigration and a Changing America” examined these statistics. According to the research, by far the most popular destinations for foreign-born residents were the Southern and Western regions of the United States. The Northeast had the least foreign-born migrants to the region.
“There is strong growth in the South, and they are chasing opportunities,” Gurak said. “There are more dynamic opportunities down there in areas like manufacturing.”
Gurak cited the high tax rates in the Northeast as one reason for the emigration. He says that while infrastructure like public schools in the South in some cases may not be as good as in the Northeast, the environment for business is better in the South, which attracts many people.
Christopherson said that while highly educated foreign-born workers are important for the upstate area, skilled workers without college degrees are also necessary for many of the manufacturing jobs in the state. One of the keys to revitalizing the Upstate economy is supporting the development of small businesses, she says, and that requires a mixture of different skill levels.
“These [manufacturing jobs] are good jobs,” said Christopherson. “These firms could double their production if they got the workforce and facilities to operate. Foreign-born workers could potentially provide workforce for these jobs.”
Utica, a small town located about two hours from Ithaca, has become an example of how immigrants can turn an economy around. An old industrial center that used to be prosperous, the town began allowing refugees from war-torn countries like Bosnia and Cambodia to settle in the area in the late 1970s. Aided by the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, more and more immigrants began to migrate to the town, taking low-level jobs and starting their own businesses.
Now housing about 7,200 immigrants from 30 countries, according to Reader’s Digest, the town has succeeded in providing for these refugees while also infusing itself with economic life. Many of the refugees have gone on to get college degrees and take high-level jobs.
Though no one is sure what role foreign-born workers will play in the future economy of upstate New York, other states are not relying solely on this demographic to fill high-level jobs. The Public Policy Institute of California released a study earlier this year entitled, “Can California Import Enough College Graduates to Meet Workforce Needs?”
For now, Christopherson and others are continuing their work to enhance the economy of the area in other ways, such as attracting young professionals and small businesses.