For all the supposed potential of the “American Dream,” immigrants in New York City often have a terrible time redeeming its promise. Many arrive in the United States with no financial grounding or burdened by a heap of debt; others can spend years priced out of financial credit by poverty and discrimination. Now, however, the city is allocating a little seed capital toward the long-overlooked economic potential of poor immigrant communities.
The Immigrant Bridge program of the city’s Economic Development Corporation is a pilot initiative that aims to invest in the future careers of struggling, underemployed immigrant workers who came equipped with credentials earned in their home countries but have been unable to get their foot in the professional door of the city’s labor market. A core component of the program is a special loan fund for immigrants with a college background, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, borrowed on five-year terms, which can be used to cover any expense, including the cost of necessary licensing exams, training classes, or basic life expenses like transportation costs. In addition to the loan fund, which will be administered by Amalgamated Bank, selected program participants would engage in career development programs to place them into jobs that suit their aptitudes.
Though Amalgamated obviously has a commercial interest in the program, the union-owned bank has built up street cred as a proletarian-friendly institution, with historical ties to the immigrant labor movement. “There’s a lot of unutilized human capital here in immigrant communities… and we want them to be reaching their full potential,” says Andrew Weltman, Amalgamated’s first Vice President for Strategic Development.
The 400 participants who will ultimately be selected to participate in Immigrant Bridge reflect just a sliver of a systemic gap in the city’s economic landscape, though. Many well-educated immigrants face structural obstacles when seeking to break into a professional field, even one in which they were successful before migrating. (Nationwide data on metropolitan area shows that the majority of immigrants hold “middle skill” or “high skill” qualifications.)
According to the New York-based think tank Fiscal Policy Institute, immigrant New Yorkers hold considerable economic clout, making up “84 percent of small grocery store owners, 69 percent of restaurant owners, and 63 percent of clothing store owners.” But even if they are technically business owners, the work can be rough and the pay low, whether you’re running a daycare business in your home or driving a cab every night.
Meanwhile, among elite professionals, recent census data shows “foreign-born workers in the City made up 100 percent of chemical engineers, 71 percent of biomedical and agricultural engineers” and nearly half of physicians and surgeons. But those numbers don’t necessarily reflect how many immigrants are qualified for these highly paid positions. Overall, advocates say that working-class immigrants (perhaps many who are qualified for other fields) tend to gravitate toward low-wage sectors such as domestic work and construction. The groups working with Immigrant Bridge are hoping to jump start more sustainable careers for underemployed low-wage immigrants.
Targeted development might also foster post-recession recovery in low-income immigrant communities. Fiscal Policy Institute found that while immigrants consistently have lower joblessness rates, in the wake of the economic collapse, “It is also likely that on average immigrants have fewer options but to take whatever work they can get, since recent immigrants and undocumented immigrants have less access to safety net protections when they lose a job.”
The city could hamper its economic potential if the institutions that could foster workforce advancement — including community development programs and the banking system — end up letting immigrant workers “settle” for more precarious, lower-paid work to avoid total destitution, rather than banking on their career potential.
CAMBA, a community-based organization involved with the Immigrant Bridge program’s workforce development component, centers its career development program on helping professional-skilled immigrants re-engage with their original field. Eileen Reilly, CAMBA’s Vice President for Economic Development, tells In These Times that many immigrants whom CAMBA serves have mistakenly downplayed their credentials — for example, by enrolling in a GED or certificate program under the presumption that the degree they earned in their home country is useless in the United States. “They’ll spend three to five years with false starts,” she says, and get stuck in a low-wage, but steady job that doesn’t match their resume. In addition, sometimes professionals who come as refugees suffer risk aversion linked to past experiences of trauma and social instability.
To combat this trend, CAMBA tries to hook people into “gateway,” career-track positions in their respective sectors. “It’s so important just to be exposed to your field,” Reilly adds. “It’s so important to feel that you are in an environment where people are working on things that you know about, that you care about, and that you’re meeting other people who are doing it, and you see, ‘Oh it is possible for me to have a life here as an accountant.’”
In addition to Immigrant Bridge, Amalgamated also has other outreach activities, including financial education, aimed at overcoming cultural and economic tensions in immigrant neighborhoods. “Different cultures have different views of both banks [and] financial institutions,” Weltman says. And in some traditional immigrant cultures, “banking is only for so-called rich people, and also there’s certain stigmas attached to credit.”
Indeed, according to a 2009 study by the financial justice group New Economy Project, immigrants tend to be “underbanked,” meaning that they use bank accounts at lower rates than native-born counterparts, especially if they are recent arrivals to the United States or undocumented. Many said they were deterred by the financial cost of banking or requirements for identification documents. The report called on local lending institutions to expand access for immigrants by strengthening non-English language services and accepting alternative forms of identification, like federal taxpayer numbers. Meanwhile, community advocates champion grassroots institutions like the city’s network of community development credit unions as an alternative to big commercial banks.
The small pilot investments of Immigrant Bridge and programs like it will hardly resolve all the socioeconomic barriers facing working-class immigrant communities. They could, however, spark inspiration among workers needing an extra boost of confidence and capital to scale a daunting professional ladder. If a small loan can bridge the gap between a worker and the certificate program they need to upgrade their programming skills, or pay for childcare that enables them to work full time, it will pay dividends in the long term — higher wages, better educational prospects for immigrants’ children, reinvestment in locally owned businesses, and a growing recogition that immigrants matter as workers and consumers.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.