Nisha Agarwal, Commissioner, New York City Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs.


Summary: Immigration and the Economic Revival of New York City

By Rebecca Bintrim

Panelists discussed how immigrants make New York City safer, improve housing affordability, and increase the city's competitiveness.

Welcoming Remarks:

  • Christopher Sabatini, Senior Director of Policy, Americas Society/Council of the Americas; Editor-in-Chief, Americas Quarterly

Keynote Speaker:

  • Nisha Agarwal, Commissioner, New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs


  • Carlos Menchaca, Council Member, New York City Council; Chair, Committee on Immigration
  • Robert Sampson, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences, Harvard University
  • Jacob Vigdor, Professor of Public Policy and Economics, Duke University
  • Kathryn Wylde, President and CEO, Partnership for New York City
  • Kate Brick, Manager of Policy, Americas Society/Council of the Americas; Editor, Americas Quarterly (Moderator)


On April 10, AS/COA launched a new policy brief, Immigration and New York City: The Contributions of Foreign-Born Americans to New York’s Renaissance, 1975-2013,… which quantifies the ways in which immigrants have had a positive impact on New York City over the past four decades. Panelists discussed how immigration reduced crime citywide, stabilized neighborhoods, and made New York City more economically competitive. The launch was part of AS/COA’s Immigration and Integration Initiative, which promotes immigrant integration and positive dialogue in gateway cities across the country.

Immigrants Make Cities More Secure

Forty percent of New Yorkers are immigrants, and 60 percent are immigrants or their children. According to the keynote speaker, Commissioner Nisha Agarwal, “cities thrive because immigrants live, work, go to school, and raise families in them.” The report shows that an increase in the immigrant population in New York City has benefited the community in unexpected ways, including making the city safer. One of the key findings is that every 1 percent increase in a precinct’s immigrant population results in 966 less crimes committed citywide.

Harvard Professor Robert Sampson’s own research supports the report’s findings, despite misconceptions about immigration. “There’s an incorrect perception about immigrants and immigration being disorderly, even though research shows the opposite” said Sampson. Within the city, “the precincts where you saw the greatest drop in crime were also the precincts where you saw the fastest rate of immigration,” said the report’s author, Jake Vigdor. New York is not the only city that has shown a downward trend in the relationship between immigration in crime; Sampson also pointed to declines in Los Angeles and Chicago and explained that some of the safest U.S. cities are border cities like San Diego and El Paso.

The panelists focused on several examples to explain the drop in crime linked with immigration, including the revitalization of neighborhoods. Immigrants tend to move into cheaper, less desirable areas—places with abandoned buildings and vacant store fronts—making them more attractive to new residents. “You’re creating more opportunities for people who want to have a job in the community but you’re taking away the factors that would have bred crime in the first place,” Vigdor explains.

The Economy of a City Improves Because of Immigration

While immigrants have been paramount in revitalizing neighborhoods across New York City, they have also contributed to the city’s tax base and filled large gaps in the labor market. In the 1970s, New York City declined in population, leading to economic stagnation. Vigdor pointed out that “population [is a] leading indicator as to whether a city is economically vibrant,” adding that New York City’s “population turnaround is a function of the immigrant population.”

Beyond lowering crime rates, immigrants also contribute to neighborhood revitalization without exacerbating New York’s affordability problems. Kathy Wylde credited immigrants for taking the risk to invest in blighted, undesirable areas when other groups wouldn’t, and in turn making those same areas more attractive to all New Yorkers. “The immigrant population rebuilt the most devastated neighborhoods of New York,” said Wylde. She also noted that New York City is the “second largest city economy in the world” of which “immigrants contribute 31 percent,”—representing over $210 billion a year.

Contrary to the misconception that immigrants take away jobs, the research shows the immigrants create jobs. “This notion that there’s a finite amount of work—that’s just not the way the economy works,” said Vigdor. The majority of the American economy is in the service sector, “when you have more people living near you, there are more services to provide. If you have more neighbors you have more customers…the whole thing about immigration is that you’re bringing in more people, that’s going to create more work to be done. When there’s more people, there’s more work,” he concluded.

Wylde agreed, stating that “we need to continue the inflow of immigrants here” and pointing out that in New York City immigrants are 49 percent of businesses owners, 45 percent of doctors, and 53 percent of software engineers.

What Comes Next For Immigration Reform?

With federal immigration reform stalled in Congress, the panelists discussed the need for sensible immigration policy at the local level. “It’s not just our government policy, but the civic engagement by our community-based organizations that are often at the cutting edge of how we implement our policies,” said Councilmember Carlos Menchaca. Sampson reiterated that “the traditional ways of operating aren’t working…we have to grow new kinds of civic arrangements that are going to incorporate [immigration] politically.” At the federal level, Wylde suggested the implementation of “a demand-based and a labor market driven immigration policy that does not suffer with artificial caps.” 

Although there is still work to be done in New York City, it remains an example of what newer immigrant gateway cities such as Charlotte, Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, and the Twin Cities can do to revitalize and sustain economic growth in their communities. With the support of Bill de Blasio's administration, Councilmember Menchaca proposed a municipal ID program on April 10 that mirrors that of New Haven's Elm City Resident Card. The New York City ID Card would be a card available to everyone, not just immigrants, "lend(ing) a certain sense of civic-ness and legitimacy" to the immigrant population, said Sampson. It will be used not only as a form of identification, but also to get access to important city services. Councilmember Menchaca emphasized that the Municipal ID Card would ensure that immigrants and residents alike feel "like they can be united and really have a key to the city and have access as a resident."