Summer 2013

Immigrants in New York City: Reaping the Benefits of Continuous Immigration

Mary C. Waters and Philip Kasinitz

Using New York City as an example, this essay examines how American cities that have a long and continuous history of absorbing immigrants develop welcoming institutions and policies for current immigrants and their children. Cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, and New York have been gateway cities for many previous waves of immigrants and continue to absorb new immigrants today. The ethnic conflicts and accommodations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries continue to shape the context of reception of today's immigrants. In contrast to “new destinations,” which in recent years have often been centers of anti-immigrant sentiment and nativist local social policies, New York has generally adopted policies designed to include and accommodate new immigrants, as well as repurposing institutions that served earlier European immigrants and native-born African Americans and Puerto Ricans. The continuing significance of race in the city is counterbalanced in the lives of immigrants by a relative lack of nativism and an openness to incorporating immigrants.

MARY C. WATERS, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2006, is the M. E. Zukerman Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. Her publications include Coming of Age in America: The Transition to Adulthood in the Twenty-First Century (edited with Patrick J. Carr, Maria J. Kefalas, and Jennifer Holdaway, 2011), The Next Generation: Immigrant Youth in a Comparative Perspective (edited with Richard Alba, 2011), and The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration since 1965 (edited with Reed Ueda, 2007).

PHILIP KASINITZ is Professor of Sociology in both the Graduate Center and Hunter College at the City University of New York. His publications include Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age (with Mary C. Waters, John H. Mollenkopf, and Jennifer Holdaway, 2008), Becoming New Yorkers: Ethnographies of the New Second Generation (edited with John H. Mollenkopf and Mary C. Waters, 2004), and The Handbook of International Migration: The American Experience (edited with Charles Hirschman and Josh DeWind, 1999).

New York . . . is a city in which the dominant racial group has been marked by ethnic variety and all ethnic groups have experienced ethnic diversity. Any one ethnic group can count on seeing its position and power wax and wane and none has become accustomed to long term domination, though each may be influential in a given area or domain. None can find challenges from new groups unexpected or outrageous. While this has not necessarily produced a reservoir of good feeling for groups different from one’s own, the evolving system of inter-group relations permit accommodation, change, and the rise of new groups.

–Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot1 

Immigration is a national issue, yet it is experienced locally. What sociologists Alejandro Portes and Rubén Rumbaut term the “context of reception”2 varies greatly by region of the United States, a fact that has become more important in recent years as states, cities, and towns have undertaken constitu- . . .


  • 1Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City (1963; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970), xiii.
  • 2Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
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