Experts push immigrant biz

Non−profit, education, and business officials gather at a LaGuardia session on immigrants and the economy last week. Photo by Anna Gustafson
By Anna Gustafson

Immigrants play a vital role in the city’s workforce, but foreign−born individuals often face daunting barriers when trying to enter into careers, education and immigration officials said at a forum at LaGuardia Community College last week.

“Immigrant businesses generate one−fifth of the business generated in New York City,” said Nikki Cicerani, managing director of Upwardly Global, a nonprofit that specializes in rebuilding careers for immigrants in the city and throughout the United States. “Between 1990 and 2007, the percentage of immigrants in the workforce increased from 9.3 [percent] to 16 percent in the U.S. It means they are here, they are contributing and they are growing.”

Cicerani was one of five speakers who discussed the impact of immigration on the economy at the forum sponsored by LaGuardia and Upwardly Global. More than 100 people gathered in a LaGuardia classroom April 22 for the two−hour event that was moderated by Sewell Chan, bureau chief of the City Room blog at The New York Times.

“Skilled and education immigrants are struggling to make a life in the U.S.,” Cicerani said. “We are not the only land of opportunity for immigrants anymore. Immigrants are returning home in greater numbers, and countries like Canada and the Netherlands are doing all they can to attract immigrants.”

Immigrant neighborhoods outpaced the rest of the city in business growth, according to Tara Colton, deputy director of the Center for an Urban Future, a public policy organization that targets problems facing low−income and working−class neighborhoods in all five boroughs.

In Queens, there has been a 54 percent increase in the number of immigrant−run businesses in Flushing, a 25 percent increase in Elmhurst and a 14 percent increase in Jackson Heights, Colton said.

“If you go to Main Street in Flushing, there’s not much space for immigrants to rent, so they’re almost a victim of their own success,” Colton said.

Despite the growth, forum speakers said it is frequently difficult for immigrants to break into a career where they can use many of the skills they acquired in their home countries. It is not rare to have doctors or college professors working as taxi cab drivers or house cleaners when they move to the U.S., Cicerani said.

Speakers advocated for such changes as more government help for city businesses run by immigrants and more intervention on the part of the federal government in creating a nationwide plan to assist immigrants to receive career training and find jobs when they enter the country.

“What needs to be in place so immigrants can be integrated into the economic life of the city is immigrants need to be able to see how to re−enter viable jobs and careers,” said Suma Kurien, director of the Center for Immigrant Education and Training at LaGuardia Community College. “They should be able to find English classes and job retraining.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e−mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 174.

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