Economic Melting Pot

Jackson Heights, N.Y., may be a model for immigrant diversity

NEW YORK — A stroll down Roosevelt Avenue up to 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, N.Y., is like walking into the world at large.

An Indian sari shop here, a Bangladeshi market there; across the street, an Argentinean steakhouse.

A table covered with glittering, iridescent Indian-style scarves and shawls sits outside of a shop on 37th just below a jewelry store. Ali Wagar, the owner, stands outside, watching and waiting for his next customer as people rush by on the always-busy New York streets.

"The great part of the immigrant majority here," Wagar said, "is that they all contribute great things to the community."

While the illegal-immigration debate continues to divide communities across the country, havens for immigrant businesses like Jackson Heights in Queens, N.Y., shed light on the successes and challenges of immigrant integration.

Acceptance of ethnic diversity is what has allowed businesses like Wagar's to thrive in the United States, he said. That is why he and other residents in the area question the efficacy and motives of anti-immigrant legislation like Arizona's SB 1070.

They are not alone.

The self-employment of foreign-born people has grown by 53 percent in New York City from 1990 to 2000, compared to a growth of 7 percent for people born in the United States in the same timeline, according to U.S. Census numbers.

Wagar has lived in New York for more than seven years, but just became a business owner in 2008. His previous job in New York was as a night manager at a Long Island Dunkin' Donuts. He now lives in Brooklyn, but commutes daily to Jackson Heights, where his shop sells garments from around the world.

"In Long Island, there is really no place for a business like mine," Wagar said. "They don't relate to the diversity as well as they do in Jackson Heights."

Wagar said community people and outsiders shop in Jackson Heights because most of the businesses are exotic and family-owned businesses, much like Wagar's garment shop.

Between 1994 and 2004, Jackson Heights experienced a 14 percent uptick in immigrant-owned businesses, according to statistics compiled from the New York Department of Labor by the Center for an Urban Future, a New York-based, progressive think tank focused on community improvement.

Wagar's transition as a newly arrived immigrant was not easy. He has a master's in marketing from a university in Pakistan, but took the job at Dunkin' Donuts to pay the bills during his first five years in America. Wagar left his wife and three children to come to America to try to build a better life so that one day, he could move his family to the United States.

"Everything is better in this country," Wagar said.

In Jackson Heights, Wagar's story is not uncommon.

"Jackson Heights is one of the most economically diverse areas you would ever see," said K.C. Williams, director of adult education at the Jackson Heights Office of Community Services. "We have millionaires right down to day laborers who all contribute to the strength of the community."

Residents come from all over the world, including Colombia, Pakistan, India and Chile, with a majority now coming from Mexico and Ecuador.

However, the fear of deportation is always something in the back of immigrants' minds, Williams said. This past summer was "the summer of hate," Williams said, referring to the negative tone of the debates swirling around SB 1070.

Many in Jackson Heights say they value "civil rights in the community and consider Arizona's immigration laws unreasonable," Williams said. "If immigrants don't want to stay in Arizona for fear of deportation, we say, 'Come to New York, and contribute to our economy.'"

Older generations of immigrant business owners have made Jackson Heights their home for decades. Jorge Leiva, 64, moved here from Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1969 with his wife.

Leiva had no job and no future in Argentina, he said. Upon his arrival, he pumped gas for a living, a job which he said would have been embarrassing back in Argentina—but he earned enough money to open his steakhouse, La Porteña, 20 years later.

Leiva said Jackson Heights was the place to come for Argentineans in the '70s, so he settled there; his children grew up and had families of their own.

But the community he moved into then is barely recognizable today. Leiva has seen the community change in ways that Wagar hasn't seen yet; Middle Eastern entrepreneurs like Wagar settled much later in the neighborhood and created a new business corridor, he said. Before, there were more Colombians settling into Jackson Heights, while today, mostly Mexican and Ecuadorian immigrants are moving in, along with many people from Middle Eastern countries.

Tati Huggins, a beauty-salon owner originally from the Dominican Republic with a shop just a few blocks from La Porteña, moved to New York with a green card 17 years ago. Her staff is a snapshot of Jackson Heights, with a Mexican nail tech and Colombian massage therapist.

"To succeed in this area, you have to be very cosmopolitan," Huggins said.

People are not in business to survive, she said, but to succeed, and success in Jackson Heights means accepting all cultures, even if that means catering to the changing demographic of immigrants moving into the area.

She said she worries a little about the negative rhetoric that has spread across the country, fueled by bills copycatting SB 1070.

"I have to turn off the TV because I get so disturbed by what I'm seeing," Huggins said. "Now I have my mother telling me to be careful, because she says someday, they're going to throw me out of the country, even though I have a green card."

But not everyone among the Jackson Heights community agrees with Huggins' worries about SB 1070. There are people in Jackson Heights who agree with laws like SB 1070, she said, but they are in the minority.

"Since they are not the majority, they tend to stay quiet," Huggins said.

Organizations like the New Immigrant Community Empowerment group try to smooth out the transition for newcomers. NICE is active in Jackson Heights and surrounding Queens communities and offers specialized services for newly arrived immigrants. They help new immigrants learn English, along with computer-literacy and basic life skills so they are able to hold a job.

Martha Chavez, 29, coordinator of advocacy and organizing for NICE, said there is support from the community, but since they fight for the rights of a broad spectrum of immigrants from different nationalities, there will always be people within the community who disagree. Sometimes, angry employers call NICE because the group advocates fair pay for immigrant workers, but that is usually the extent of the calls, she said.

Chavez, too, has seen the changes in the Jackson Heights community due to the influx of Mexican and Ecuadorian immigrants, she said. Some of the older generations of immigrants may not approve of the changes, but there is no violence and no hate crimes that she is aware of, she added.

Valeria Treves, executive director at NICE, said that racism remains an issue. "We can't say we are insulated from issues of hate and racism, because they are happening so close by."

Recent hate crimes just miles away in Staten Island exemplify violence caused by racism. In July, an 18-year-old Mexican man was kicked and punched to the ground by assailants while they yelled racial slurs.

Yet Treves said she still believes Jackson Heights can serve as a model for other communities.

"Is there any undoing of what's already been done?" she asked rhetorically. "I say no, there is definitely no undoing of Jackson Heights into a white American place, absolutely not—because we pride ourselves on the fact that we exist only because of the diversity."

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