At around 7 a.m. one day last August, the first migrants sent to New York City by the governor of Texas arrived with little warning on a bus, and walked sleepily into their new lives.
They joined others who moved into shelters, then hotels, then white tents on an island in the East River and, as more came, into empty office buildings and school gyms. They enrolled their children in nearby schools, ate boxed meals served by the city, and clothed themselves in castoff pants and shirts donated by volunteers.
By June, the city had counted more than 80,000 newcomers. Roughly half moved into public shelters, and the city’s shelter system reached 100,000 that month. City officials added up the costs of housing them: an estimated $4.3 billion by next summer. Mayor Eric Adams begged for federal help, disparaged President Biden and warned that the city was being “destroyed.”
But unseen and unheard were economists and social scientists, who point out that the immediate controversy has overshadowed an established truth: The city was built by waves of migrants who settled in, paid taxes, buttressed a labor force, started businesses and generally lifted the communities they joined.
This latest group will do the same, they argued.
Without immigrants, New York City would be shrinking. Even if New York never recovers what it spends now, the economists and historians say, the migrants will eventually be good for the city.
“In so many ways, immigrants have always made and remade America,” said Nancy Foner, an immigration historian at Hunter College. “And they’re doing it again.”
Some newcomers already have started to remake their lives, and the city around them. They include Pedro Perez, a migrant from Venezuela who is fluent in English, and who spent Monday morning studying for the SAT and planning his applications to elite universities.
“My dream is to graduate from Princeton and be a lawyer,” said Mr. Perez, 22.
They include Wilfredo Yanez, 29, who arrived from Venezuela on a Friday, and by Tuesday had a job at a construction site in Manhattan.
After leaving Venezuela to seek asylum in the United States, Wilfredo Janez found work at construction sites in downtown Manhattan. Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times
“I didn’t want to be a burden on the city, or dependent on them for help,” said Mr. Yanez.
And there’s Belsy Antolinez, who uses a little blue scooter to deliver food all over the city and shares an apartment with other migrants in Corona, Queens, where she is raising her three children.
“My dream is to have a restaurant because what I love most is cooking,” said Ms. Antolinez, 35.
Like most migrants who arrive in New York City, these three needed help when they first arrived, but were impatient to become self-sufficient.
“Yes, for a little while, maybe some of them need a little assistance,” said Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California, Davis. “But if you take a deep breath, you see that American cities will benefit from these people who are coming to work.”
In the long run, economists and historians see a familiar picture: A spike in immigration stirs heated political debate, even as people who immigrate, both legally and illegally, begin to set down roots and start contributing economically.
“Immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth,” according to a National Academy of Sciences report published by 29 of the nation’s top economists and demographers.
“It’s very hard to find an economist who doesn’t think that,” said Tara Watson, an economist at Williams College.
Within this broad consensus lies a narrow band of disagreement. Economists including Mr. Peri stress decades of research that finds migrants either improve wages for native-born workers in the United States, or have no impact at all.
Gordon Hanson, an economist at Harvard University, says however that migrants may decrease the wages of native workers, but only in certain cities and economic conditions. These negative impacts fall disproportionately on Americans with less education, earlier immigrants and Black workers.
But, Mr. Hanson said, he still agrees on the larger economic upsides.
“I think the most significant thing is that we would agree on the headline statement, that immigration is a net positive for the U.S.,” he said.
The path of Ms. Antolinez and her husband, Darwin Valbuena, is already tracking with economists’ expectations for migrants. The family fled San Cristobal, a small city in Venezuela, over a year and half ago, after a bodega they owned was struck by robbers. Ms. Antolinez was seven months pregnant.
After crossing into California, the couple applied for asylum, flew to LaGuardia airport, and in January 2022 moved into the two-bedroom apartment of Rut Ostos, an Evangelical pastor who had married them back home.
Now, with hustle and a little help, the family has gained a toehold in New York City.
A member of Ms. Ostos’s church offered the Valbuenas a four-bedroom apartment in Corona that they rent with two other families. Mr. Valbuena, a former professional soccer player, has two soccer coaching jobs and plans to open his own soccer academy.
“It was hard to leave everything behind to start new in a country we didn’t know,” said Mr. Valbuena, 37. “But that’s how we are, we always work.”
Mr. Valbuena, however, has some advantages that many migrants do not enjoy. In addition to a place to stay, he has a college degree and a temporary permit allowing him to work.
Others seeking asylum may not succeed. They will become undocumented immigrants, who generally receive lower wages and thus pay lower amounts in taxes, Hanson and Peri said. They will also face greater risks of exploitation and, possibly, deportation. A housing shortage has made it especially difficult for people — New Yorkers and newcomers alike — to find permanent homes.
And many newcomers arrived without connections to help them navigate a challenging city, at least at first.
But the arrival of thousands of migrants, regardless of their legal status or education levels, comes at an ideal time to address the city’s demographic problems, experts said. Nearly half a million residents left New York City between 2020 and 2023, a 5 percent drop, according to the Census Bureau.
College graduates and families with children have left the city in record numbers. New York City’s population of undocumented workers also dropped, by about 60,000 during the decade that ended in 2018.
Those declines are bad for the economy, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Policies by the Trump administration to reduce immigration, combined with the drop in immigrant arrivals caused by the coronavirus pandemic, left two million “missing migrants,” Mr. Peri found.
“We see a few more immigrants coming in, but we’re just catching up a little bit with the dramatic stop” in immigration in recent years, Mr. Peri said.
The situation echoes the 1970s, when an influx of immigrants saved New York City from economic collapse as businesses and white middle-class families left the city, said Tom Wright, executive director of the Regional Plan Association.
“The most successful public policy in New York in the 1970s was being open to immigration,” Mr. Wright said. “If not for that, New York City may have wound up in a trajectory similar to Detroit.”
If not for immigrants, the entire metropolitan region would have lost 600,000 people between 2000 and 2006, according to Ms. Foner.
At the moment, New York City is facing a labor shortage and is in need of 10,000 bar and restaurant workers, while the state needs 40,000 home health aides and 70,000 nurses and nursing assistants, according to researchers and industry groups.
Growing labor shortages are due in part to the demographics of the American population, which at 38.9 years is the oldest median age in the nation’s history.
In just one sector — construction companies in New York State — the retirement of middle-aged workers may cause job vacancies to more than triple, to more than 150,000 in the next five years, said Brian Sampson, president of the Empire State chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group.
Immigrants will be crucial to filling those vacant positions, industry leaders said.
“Immigrants tend to come in prime working age, so they are filling exactly where we have a gap,” said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the Immigration Research Initiative, a nonpartisan think tank.
Not all new migrants will stay. Some have already left for other parts of the country or for Canada, which has encouraged legal migration to boost its economy.
The faster immigrants find jobs and apartments of their own, the sooner they can help newer immigrants, said Neeraj Kaushal, a professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work who studies immigration.
Mr. Valbuena is doing his part. Recently he met some brand-new arrivals to the city: Mateo Miño, 14, and his aunt Cristina, who came from Quito, Ecuador.
On his second day in the city, Mateo experienced a panic attack. He had arrived after a journey in which he witnessed his aunt Cristina’s assault in Mexico, and then spent three months in a U.S. shelter for migrant youth.
Luckily, the anxiety attack happened at Ms. Ostos’s church in Long Island City, Queens. Cristina, who asked that her last name not be published because she fears reprisal by her attackers, learned about the church at the shelter where the family is staying.
Ms. Ostos suggested getting Miño involved in soccer through Mr. Valbuena’s team. Cristina began volunteering at the church. She also found work selling food on the streets and is looking for something more stable.
“I had nothing,” Cristina, said of her arrival in New York. Until, she added, “I found a community that has helped me.”