Living in America: the Foreign- Born Population and West Indian Americans

By Aubrey Bonnett

According to recent Census report data gleaned in 2004 there are over 34 million foreign -born immigrants in the nation, amounting to approximately 12 percent of
the total population. Despite the context of rising xenophobia occurring after the 9/11 catastrophic attacks, an increase in outsourcing and downsizing of Americans’ jobs to peripheral “donor” societies, and a Congress seemingly unwilling even to follow the President’s lead in passing ameliorative legislation for the “undocumented” cohorts, the pull factors in this country-economic, educational, political, for example –continue to attract many of the new transnationals, including West Indian Americans.

One feature of the new immigration-since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments in 1965- has been the attraction of the new portals to
these immigrants: states such as Nevada, California, Texas, Georgia, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Colorado have replaced Massachusetts, New York,
New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, as entry ports for these populations.

Correspondingly, cities such as Las Vegas ,Los Angeles, Miami ,Atlanta, have replaced Newark, Boston, New Haven, Syracuse, Pittsburgh , and Detroit as the
new flash points for chain migration .Despite this shift in migration patterns, New York has been able to retain its vitality by relying on the vibrancy, hard work and resilience of the new transnationals, as they bring life to formerly blighted and depressed neighborhoods, and inject new ethnic voting patterns in the city’s and
suburban political mosaic. To further validate this phenomenon, the New York City Planning department recently released an important document entitled , The Newest New Yorkers, which provides interesting demographic data on the foreign- born, including West Indian Americans.

In New York City, for example, according to most recent census data relating to 2000, thirty six (36) percent of the population, (2,871,032), is foreign born; as compared with eleven percent, (11), nationwide. These figures, it is reported, indicate all- time highs for both the city’s overall population, as well as its foreign –
born component. Nearly seventy (70) percent of the city’s foreign- born population entered the U.S. in 1980 or later, similar to that for the overall U.S. foreign –
born population.

Although Latin America was the top area of origin in New York City, accounting for approximately one –third of the city’s immigrants, non-Hispanic Caribbean immigrants, [West Indian Americans], disproportionately made their home there. While West Indian Americans accounted for more than one –in – five of the foreign –born population in the city, they comprised, the Report indicate, just five percent of the nation’s foreign- born, thus creating what I have described elsewhere as “ethnic villages” [enclaves], with differential structural shields such as “susu” to facilitate and buttress their economic and social incorporation in the City.

Immigrants from the Dominican Republic, [called Dominicans], are the top ranked ethnic group in terms of foreign- born population in the City; Jamaicans are third, Guyanese fourth, and Trinidadians eight. Indeed, according to a new report by a U.S. Federal commission, Guyanese ranked number nine, (711 Guyanese), in the asylum seekers to this nation, however only three percent were successful in their quest. In this regard, it also interesting that Indo- Guyanese and the current Jagdeo government seemed nonplussed to explain why some Guyanese might define their Government’s actions, political and economic stance as “oppressive”, and thereby seek to obtain asylum, elsewhere? An indication, to me, that much more needs to be done by the elite in power and controlling the State, to nurture and build a more inclusive and salutary social climate that promotes liberty, economic freedom , a free and independent judiciary, and a police force that is not a disrespected authoritarian arm of the government, bur rather one that respects and abides by the rule of law.

Jamaicans, six (6) percent, and Guyanese, five (5) percent, comprise the highest numbers of the West Indian American cohort in the foreign- born population in the City. Dominicans, for example, are thirteen (13) percent of this base. Further, Jamaicans live largely in the Bronx, thirteen (13) percent’ and in Brooklyn eight (8) percent; as compared with Guyanese ,seven (7) percent residing in the county of Queens, and in Brooklyn (Kings county), four (4) per cent. With regard to the settlement patterns of the three largest West Indian American groups- Jamaicans, Guyanese and Trinidadians- forty –one (41) percent of Jamaicans in the City
lived in Brooklyn; while the Bronx and Queens were home to twenty –nine (29) percent and twenty-six (26) percent, respectively. Just over one half of all
Guyanese live in Queens; with thirty (36) percent in Brooklyn, and eleven (11) in the Bronx. Trinidadians are highly concentrated in Brooklyn, fifty-nine (59) percent, and in Queens- thirty (30) per cent. Guyanese have the highest rate of home ownership among West Indian Americans in the City, forty-nine (49 percent); closely followed
by Jamaicans thirty seven (37) percent; and Trinidadians thirty -two (32) percent.

Further, Guyanese had the highest rate of marriage among West Indian Americans, fifty five, (55) percent; followed by Trinidadians, thirty-nine (39) percent;
Jamaicans thirty three, (33 )percent; and, conversely, had the lowest rates of female headed household (no spouse present) twenty-two (22) percent, as compared
with Trinidadians, thirty –two( 32) percent; and Jamaicans, the highest with thirty three (33) percent.

As the Report indicate, and as I and other demographers and migration professionals have posited, groups with limited or low levels of human capital tend to
maximize their strength by having multiple workers in the household. On the one hand, the manifest function of this is good in that it raises the median income of the appropriate groups.

Guyanese, for example, had the highest median income among West Indian Americans, ($41,500); with Jamaicans closely following with ($38,500) and
Trinidadians, ($36,300). Conversely, a latent or unintended function of this process and labor force immersion, is that it leaves many children unattended for long periods after school,(latch- key kids), if they are domiciled in the U.S, thereby increasing their changes of engaging in illegal gang activity; or, as “barrel children” in
the donor societies, leaving them gullible and vulnerable to domineering authority figures on their entry to the U.S, (as manifested in the unfortunate trajectory of convicted juvenile sniper killer, Lee Malvo), when they do emigrate.

What is important and salient here are:

a) The enduring resilience of the City as a world city and a vital haven for all immigrants- including West Indian Americans-much of this is due to the 1965 changes
in the Immigration and Nationality Amendments which departed for the old national origins quota system, and focused on family reunification and other favorable
criteria. The new transnationals have, consequently, utilized these changes to remake and revitalize New York.

b) The West Indian American population, which comprised under ten (10) percent of the black non- Hispanic population in 1970, now accounts for nearly one –
third (632,000) of this group. The social processes and social distance between these two groups have not always been harmonious and free of conflict, but progressive leadership and a renewed dynamic vitality has led to a lessening of tensions and a slight increase in exogamy between the second generation and native African Americans.

c) With local elections just months away in the City, and with no single ethnic group comprising a majority, there are strong probabilities and pressures for West
Indian Americans to play pivotal roles in either the re-election of Mayor Bloomberg or the election of the City’s first Hispanic Mayor, Fernando Ferrer – the latter choice which I strongly endorse.

So, Los Angeles and Las Vegas notwithstanding, New York remains the quintessential world city, and West Indian Americans continue to play a crucial role in its renaissance, even as the new Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, releases the nation’s comprehensive global human rights report, which finds much at fault, in
varying degrees , with the three main donor societies-Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad- from which nation- states West Indian immigrants and their American progeny come. New York remains, however, as Sociologist Roger Waldinger describes it, as: Still The Promised City.