Voices of Black and Brown Immigrants Under a Changing New York City

Voices of Black and Brown Immigrants Under a Changing New York City

By Linda Nwoke

A lot has changed in New York and the city since the pandemic.

Besides the post-traumatic impact of the pandemic, which has left many New Yorkers emotionally drained and financially strained, the city is still striving to recover at multiple levels, with highs and lows in specific sectors.

Some areas used in measuring the city’s recovery include the unemployment rate and the state of tourism – specifically, the tourist’s return to the town and its impact on the culture and hospitality sectors. Transportation, especially subway ridership, the state of the economy, especially the rate at which workers are returning to the office, and the health of local businesses in New York City.

Rate of Unemployment
At the pandemic’s height, the city lost 1 million jobs, driven by shutdowns to contain the spread of the virus and the number of deaths through infection. Unemployment rose to over 20% from 3% before the shutdown. However, it has dropped to more than 5% across the city.

Return to Office
Only 48% of New Yorkers have returned to an on-site working pattern. Most are either working remotely or on a hybrid worker basis. The number of employees reporting to their New York City office remains at about half of the pre-COVID figures.

The subway ridership is a significant indication of the city’s stage of recovery. The record shows that it fell more than 90% during the pandemic, but this has improved significantly but not to the level pre-pandemic. Presently, subway ridership is only 45%, specifically in Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx. However, the changes will remain slow as more workers continue to work remotely and fewer workers travel to on-site offices in the city center. Additionally, the problem of security and safety in the subway remains a significant concern that has contributed to the slow recovery rate. “I am scared of riding on the subway, which has never happened before. I am scared of the crimes and harassment that occurs there,” says Toks, an immigrant from Nigeria who lives in the Bronx. “I’m wondering if I want my family to continue living here in New York. ”

Key Industries
The primary industry affected by the pandemic was the hospitality and tourism sectors. In contrast, the fulfillment from warehouse and entertainment industries boomed during the pandemic. However, recovery has remained uneven in the different sectors based on data from the statistics bureau. For instance, while there has been an improvement within the tourism sector, it has yet to go back to its original state pre-pandemic.

Politics In New York
Since the pandemic, especially at the beginning of 2022, there has been a transition from the former mayor, Bill de Blasio, to a new Mayor, Eric Adams, and new City Council members. There have been changes in education, homelessness, and immigrants within the city.
Numerous homeless New Yorkers were severely affected during the pandemic. However, it has improved over the years with a significant drop in the city’s homelessness rate. Many families left the shelter system when the city paid to turn shelters into permanent affordable housing.

However, there has been a notable increase in homelessness despite efforts since the expiration of the eviction moratorium. Recently, the influx of immigrants from other parts of the U.S.

Immigration and Immigrants in New York City
Immigrants make up the backbone of New York City’s economy, with a workforce comprising over 40% foreign-born immigrants. A workforce that was disproportionately affected during the pandemic. Many immigrants face challenges while trying to survive, and many still live with the impact as the city strives to recover. Beyond these, there was a halt to the influx of immigrants into the state. Until recently, immigrants were bussed into the city to score political points.

Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, sent several busloads of migrants from the border in the South to New York City. However, the droves of immigrants face many challenges ranging from inadequate shelter to language barriers and inhibiting the bureaucratic intake process. While many are happy to be in the city and welcomed, many still feel confused.

One of the many sources of frustration is New York’s shelters, which are already struggling with an influx of migrants and the growing population of over 3,000 asylum seekers who have entered the system.

Furthermore, there are many changes to the immigration pattern, including the legal immigration process. There was a halt to the program in which family members sponsor relatives. According to records, a program used predominantly by most blacks, especially Caribbeans, to bring in family members, had the lowest number of petitions in the New York regional offices.

The program accounts for two-thirds of all legal immigration nationwide. Sadly, post-COVID, many immigrants in New York are dealing with the impact of delays and seemingly policy confusion caused by the process’s halt.

For instance, many asylum seekers, already facing several years’ backlogs in the petition courts, must wait more years as the agency and courts go through tons of pending applications.

“Two years ago, when the pandemic started, many service centers, including the courts, were closed. I think that caused the delay,” said Jean from Haiti, who lives in Brooklyn.

For many Black Caribbean immigrants, whose family members are awaiting decisions from the authorities, the timeframe for family-sponsored immigration has lengthened due to the backlog.

“A lot of things have changed, and we can’t find enough answers,” says Sharon, a Trinidadian living in Brooklyn since 2010 and filed to bring family members into the family reunification program.

According to a report from the Pew Center of Research, immigrants from Africa account for the fastest growth in the U.S. Black immigrant population, with immigrants from the Caribbean remaining the largest and making up over 80% of all foreign-born Black people in the U.S. in 2019. Most black immigrants came from Jamaica, Haiti, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. Hence, Africans and Caribbeans make up most of the Black community in the U.S.

Mixed Feelings Among Immigrants
There appear to be mixed feelings among black and brown immigrants as the city recovers post-pandemic. Many are bracing for a bumpy ride as reports of an impending recession loom and the reality of a hard-biting inflation hits.

Many business owners and immigrant workers are exploring options to counter some of the harsh realities. For instance, business owners without adequate capital to run a physical business have resorted to operating on the streets. They use food trucks, carts, and hawk to make a living.
Others, including immigrants, continue to work multiple jobs – from working at shops, driving cabs, and finding other side hustles. “It’s getting tougher to continue to live in the city,” says Gabriela from Grenada, who lives in Brooklyn, “but we must keep trying, “she added.

One theme that cuts across, irrespective of whether the immigrant is new or old, is the need to survive. All immigrants’ issues remain the same – affordable housing, access to healthcare, quality education for their children, fairness, equity at work, etc. The main difference lies in the accessibility to support from the government, resources, and assistance. Many immigrants who arrived in the city years and months ago are battling with finding their feet.

Maria Rodriguez, from Colombia, says, “I arrived in New York in July, and I still can’t find a job. It is tough because I have two children, but I can’t leave them alone for a long time where I stay, so I can’t go and look for a job. I don’t know what to do,” she says.

Maria is one of the immigrants living in a shelter who has been unable to find work and get enough money to pay a lawyer to file for asylum. The absence of free legal services is also a great challenge for many immigrants. It prolongs their status as undocumented immigrants, exposing them to deportation if the process is not commenced on time.

The weight of the frustration can become so much that it results in numerous mental health issues if not taken seriously. Yet, despite the bleak situation and an uncertain future, many remain hopeful. “I am grateful for the help me and my family have received from the city and other groups. My daughter is in school, and I can’t find a job yet, but I am very hopeful”, says Gomez. “I really need to find work when I get my permit. That will make me legal, which is the most important thing for me,” he says in Spanish.

This article is part of the 2022 NY State Elections Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

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