Romney Ignores Blessings of New York's Immigrants

Aug. 23 (Bloomberg) — Mitt Romney is working hard to surpass his presidential campaign competitor, Rudy Giuliani, in displays of concern over illegal immigration.

Romney recently spoke negatively of cities that provide schooling and funds to illegal immigrants, and said that during Giuliani's days as mayor, "New York City was the poster child for sanctuary cities in the country and I think that's the wrong way to go."

What's going on?

Romney and Giuliani have been running a race to the right on immigration. And their opponent from Arizona, Senator John McCain, is watching his campaign collapse around him, in good part because of his own effort to pass a reasonable immigration law earlier this year. But just because what Romney says is fashionable doesn't mean that it makes sense.

This summer New Yorkers are marking the 30th anniversary of the 1977 blackout with fascination. That's because the dying city of the 1970s seems so dated, so different from the iPhone fun-town of today.

In the mid-1970s people weren't buying coops in Flatbush. They were selling them — rental vacancy rates, even in rent-controlled buildings, ranged above 5 percent. Crime was causing the middle class to pull out of the schools and flee to the suburbs. The city government was broke.

The power outage led to arson and mayhem. From Bushwick and Crown Heights in Brooklyn to Jamaica, Queens, to Mount Vernon and Yonkers in Westchester, looters attacked stores and homes. Along Broadway in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the New York Times reported, unlooted stores were the exception rather than the rule. Armed store owners sat in cars in front of their shops waiting to confront rioters.

Edge of Anarchy

Everyone blamed Con Edison, but the reality was something more sinister: a city on the edge of anarchy. To many Manhattanites, Brooklyn and Queens were becoming forbidden territory, New York's own East Berlins. Central Park was too treacherous to venture into at night.

There was also a sense of intellectual decay. The quality of teaching from university to grade school was going down, and so was the quality of students. "Rigorous high school courses attract fewer in New York City" read one 1978 headline, a deadly signal at a time when Japan was just gearing up to challenge American high-tech.

The late 1970s ended up being a turning point, not an end point. As author Jonathan Mahler points out in a remarkable book about that period, "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning," the late 1970s were a "transformative moment for the city, a time of decay but of regeneration as well."

City Transformation

Immigrants were central to that transformation. They flooded the city, filled the schools and rebuilt the apartments and the storefronts. Immigrants reclaimed Jamaica, that section of Queens where the riots had taken place. New block associations replaced the old Irish or Italian ones.

The city lost its divided feel. New York seemed to expand as the boroughs became inviting again. By 1995, a full third of New York was foreign born, up from 18 percent in 1970. Crime declined, and the immigrants got along in a fashion few had foreseen.

"Archie Bunker would have a hard time figuring out whom to resent," Joseph J. Salvo, a city demographer, told the Washington Post in the 1990s, referring to the bigoted character in the popular TV sit-com from the '70s.

Children from Asia or Latin America provided a welcome signal to those already in the schools: New York has to compete. To school children in other American cities, globalization may be a textbook concept. Not in New York, where 11th-grade children of natives must routinely race to catch up to the children of Vietnamese, Chinese, Indians and Russians in pre-calculus.

Blessing New York

Many businesses stayed in New York in part because of the availability of immigrant brains. New York's population therefore dropped less than that of some other cities.

New Yorkers are often accused of provincialism, and legitimately. They believe New York will always be a financial center, no matter what. They also tend to defend immigration without regard to the expenses immigrants impose on California's state coffers, or the challenges facing those policing the borders in the Southwest. Not all immigrants do for their towns what illegal immigrants did for New York, as Peter Salins, a scholar at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, points out.

Romney is displaying another sort of provincialism — that of the rest of the country, which resents New York's success, much of which is owed to immigrants, including illegals.

The 1970s are long gone, and this may well be the moment for the U.S. to close the door to illegals. But rewriting law doesn't mean we have to rewrite history.

"Regardless of their legal or illegal status, immigrants have made an enormous social and economic contribution to New York City," Salins says.

New York may have served as a sanctuary for illegal immigrants, but it is illegal immigrants who have blessed the city, not the other way around.

(Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in economic history, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

© Copyright 2007 Bloomberg

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