Hurricane Sandy: An Immigration Perspective

Author: on 11/02/2012


The power is still out, the servers are down, the subway is closed, and there is a mountain of work ahead of all of us before the New York area is even close to back to normal.  But amidst all the destruction, there have been a multitude of stories of people doing their best to help others in a difficult time.  The guy who has power and puts extension cords and power strips out near his gate, letting strangers charge their phones.  The New Yorkers who buy extra food and offer it to their neighbors who are unable to venture forth.  Those courageous, heroic nurses who kept children alive while making their way down nine flights of stairs in the dark.  These are stories of human decency.

Every day, any news story involving immigration grabs my eye, as I’m sure it does yours.  So many times, those news reports highlight the lack of understanding that too many people have when it comes to immigration.  Too many people think “self deportation” is a rational option.  Too many people think of immigration and immigrants as problems that need a solution, instead of real people doing the best they can to build a good life for themselves and their families.

So what have I seen after Sandy?  I’ve seen headlines like the one from ABC News about how “Immigrant Jobs Keep New York City Running During Sandy.”  The story highlighted the fact that “Immigrants make up half of all small business owners in New York City” and that “fields like taxi and limousine services, with 90 percent immigrant ownership, will be crucial during the hurricane.”  That proved to be the case when the lights went out and the NYSE shut down.

I have first-hand experience of the vital work that kept going despite the storm.  Recently my daughter had a devastating injury to her leg and because of the severity of her injury she urgently needed to see her orthopedic surgeon this week.  One missed appointment could have huge repercussions.  After three hours of traffic gridlock, we made it to her appointment where she was cared for by staff and nurses, a large proportion of which were immigrants.  Despite the stress, exhaustion, and turmoil, each and every person there was compassionate and selfless, making sure everyone received care.

The hurricane also brought national attention to the inequities that are often hidden when everything is going well.  A Reuters reporter highlighted the “cooks, cashiers and hotel workers who stayed at work instead of rushing home” who made it possible for his family and so many others to stay safe in a hotel away from floodwaters.   He writes, “They were a diverse group. Some were young people in their twenties. Others were middle-aged Americans who had never landed white-collar jobs. Most were immigrants.”

As we begin to look towards recovering and rebuilding, I thought of a recent blog posting from the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank.  That post, titled “Immigrants Are Important for Disaster Reconstruction,” is grateful that there are immigrants ready and willing to help the city get back on its feet.  The blogger writes, “Immigrant workers are the economic early responders to natural disasters…As in previous natural disasters, they will be an important component of any rebuilding.”

These stories, all different, convey a set of messages that we desperately need the majority of America, and their Congressional Representatives to understand.  Immigrants are real people.  They are active in their local communities.  They contribute to the economy.  They come to America for different reasons but I think it all boils down to freedom.  Freedom to make their own decisions.  Freedom to work and build a better life for their family.  Freedom to learn.  Freedom from persecution or fear.

We all want those things.  In the aftermath of the storm, most of all we want to get back to “normal.”  Hopefully these sorts of stories can help everyone understand that we are all in this together.  That no matter what country we may have come from, we are all here as Americans today.

Written by: Deborah J. Notkin, Chair, AILA Media-Advocacy Committee

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