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Mexicans Finding a Place in a City of Immigrants

New York has plenty of jobs and little political backlash against their presence. But experts see deep economic and educational troubles.

October 06, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — In a city that traditionally has welcomed immigrants, the news seemed like a slap in the face: With virtually no advance warning, trustees for the City University of New York decided to increase the annual tuition for undocumented students by nearly 113%, ordering them to pay the same rates as out-of-state residents.

The increase affected some 2,600 students -- most of them low-income Mexicans. And Angelo Cabrera, a 26-year-old CUNY political science major who came to New York from Mexico as a teenager, decided to fight back by helping organize a citywide grass-roots coalition.

"We staged hunger strikes, we worked with labor unions and other Latino groups, and we finally persuaded Gov. [George E.] Pataki to sign a bill restoring the lower rates," said Cabrera, recalling the 10-month struggle. "I think we also showed that while Mexicans may be new to New York, we are here to stay."

Although the city's earliest Mexican immigrants date back to the 1920s, their numbers have been booming in recent decades, tripling since 1980. In the 2000 U.S. Census, the population was counted at 187,000. Many experts believe the real figure may be closer to 300,000 -- and they expect it to double in 10 years.

The city's Mexican population rivals in size those of San Jose, San Diego and Santa Ana. In one sense, these immigrants are duplicating the New York experience of groups that came before them: They are jostling for their place in the city's ethnic hierarchy, opening shops and restaurants, and beginning to flex some political muscle.

Unlike California, where the competition for low-paying work can often be intense, Mexican immigrants in New York have tapped into a bounty of work. There has been no organized political backlash against their presence, and the demand for their labor seems insatiable. They typically earn five to six times more in a year than they did in the rural state of Puebla, near Mexico City, from which many have come.

But census figures also reveal deep economic problems. Nearly 50% of the city's Mexican immigrants complete nine years of schooling or less, while the same percentage of students citywide graduate from high school.

While many of these immigrants have found work in small shops, restaurants and at construction sites, their median income is $10,231, less than half the $22,402 average for most New Yorkers as measured in 1999 labor statistics.

Perhaps most disturbing, nearly one-third of Mexicans in the city live at or below the poverty line, nearly double the citywide rate.

Although grass-roots campaigns have been launched to raise wages for workers in groceries, laundries, restaurants and dry cleaners, many fear the problem of wage disparity will only worsen, said Francisco Rivera-Batiz, a Columbia University economics professor who recently released a detailed study of New York's Mexican community.

"This could become a major social and economic concern, because there are large numbers of Mexican children being born in the city now," he said. "If we don't find a way to keep them in the school system, and to pay people higher wages, they will not acclimate as successfully here in New York as many other immigrant groups."

All of this may come as a surprise to New Yorkers, many of whom are only dimly aware of the "Little Mexico" enclaves springing up in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. The city's larger Puerto Rican and Dominican communities typically get more attention and, unlike Mexicans, they have elected candidates to public office.

While the plight of Mexican laborers is becoming more visible -- such as the hundreds of immigrants who helped clean up the World Trade Center debris without protective clothing and had high rates of bronchial infection -- the conflicts they generate attract even more coverage. When low-paid undocumented workers have shown up at construction sites, they have often sparked friction with union representatives.

"New Yorkers are just waking up to the fact that this community is growing rapidly and is a part of the city's fabric," said Robert Smith, a Barnard College sociology professor and author of the forthcoming "Mexican New York." But the city's response to this continuing influx "is still largely unfocused, and given the huge economic problems now looming with Mexicans in New York, that could be a tragedy," he added.

It's a different story in the private and nonprofit sectors, where there are a number of social service groups offering help to Mexican immigrants in New York, such as the Tepeyac Assn., a network of 40 community-based organizations. These groups provide economic and educational assistance, "but immigrants all require different services, because each person is unique," Rivera-Batiz said. "In New York, there are so many faces to the Mexican community."

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