New Jersey is a state of Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, Korean bathhouses and Polish meat markets. We have Italian delis, Jewish delis, Portuguese barbecue, Mexican taquerias and Chinese takeout. If ever we decide to jettison the Garden State nickname, it would be altogether fitting to replace it with the Immigration State.
For more than a century, immigrants have been the lifeblood of New Jersey, enriching our culture, shaping our politics, seasoning our food and expanding our labor force. Today, immigrants represent 20 percent of our population—a ratio surpassed only in California and New York.
The Garden State has long been a beacon for the foreign born, thanks in part to its proximity to Ellis Island and New York City, but also because our history of immigration has made us friendlier to newcomers than most other states. (Which isn’t to say that New Jersey is devoid of issues relating to immigration.)
In the 19th century, the state’s burgeoning industrial economy welcomed immigrant labor to staff its paper, textile and steel mills, and to help turn out hats, cotton thread, soap, glassware and sewing machines. When new waves of immigration reached our shores in the years after World War II, we were already well accustomed to immigrant neighbors and coworkers.
Those postwar waves have changed the face of New Jersey, largely to its great advantage. For one thing, they’ve reinforced our stature as a bastion of cultural diversity. While in most other states, a single immigrant group prevails (Mexicans in California, for instance, or West Asians in Michigan), New Jersey’s foreign-born population is extraordinarily varied, as illustrated by the top five countries of origin as of 2015: 12.5 percent Indian, 8.4 percent Dominican, 6 percent Mexican, 4.5 percent Filipino and 4 percent Korean. According to Janice Fine, an associate professor at Rutgers who studies immigrant labor, the state’s tolerance toward newcomers stems in part from its “diverse distribution of immigrants.”
Like previous generations of immigrants, the post war arrivals tend to cluster in ethnic enclaves: Latinos in Hudson County and in farming communities like Hammonton, Vineland and Bridgeton; Indians in Edison, Iselin, West Windsor, Princeton, Plainsboro and Secaucus; Muslims in Paterson; Koreans in Bergen County. However, unlike their predecessors, the latest immigrants in many cases are forgoing New Jersey’s cities for its suburbs.
It’s a trend that has lately raised tensions in communities less accustomed to foreign-born residents. In 2003, for instance, Freehold imposed fines on day laborers, who are mostly immigrants, soliciting work in public spaces; at the same time, building inspectors and police officers routinely entered laborers’ homes without their consent in what immigrant advocates called the deliberate persecution of Latinos. (Both practices were barred through the settlement of a lawsuit in 2006.)
The Freehold day laborers are among the 500,000 undocumented immigrants in New Jersey. While a number of municipalities have identified themselves as sanctuary cities—communities that openly support their undocumented populations—life for recent immigrants isn’t always rosy in the Garden State. More than 1 million New Jersey residents—including 23.6 percent of new arrivals, according to the American Immigration Council—speak little or no English, yet our schools are ill prepared to address the issue. In 2010, only 25,010 of those million-plus adults were registered in state-administered ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. Public schools in the state teach English-language classes to another 72,000 students.
For some immigrants, the greatest burden is fear, either of violence or deportation. Since 9/11, wariness has prevailed between Muslim immigrants and much of the entrenched population. This was manifest following a truck attack last October in New York City, when two mosques in Paterson—home to the attacker—received bomb threats.
Anxiety about potential deportation plagues both the state’s undocumented aliens and those with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a designation granted by the federal government to refugees from countries ravaged by ongoing conflict, natural disasters or other extraordinary dangers. The state’s 6,800 Salvadoran refugees and their children will learn in March whether their TPS status will be extended; the same fate awaits New Jersey’s 3,700 Honduran refugees and their children in July. The Trump adminstration recently set a July 2019 TPS deadline for some 3,400 who fled Haiti for the Garden State after a devastating earthquake in 2010. The Center for American Progress estimates that, if these groups lose TPS status, the state will lose some $872 million annually thanks to diminished productivity.
Undocumented immigrants face increased likelihood of deportation in the Trump era. Many immigrants previously protected under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation are now in jeopardy. DACA had afforded provisional legal status, on a renewable two-year basis, to undocumented immigrant children who came to the United States with their parents when they were under the age of 16—more than 17,000 of whom live in New Jersey—but was rescinded by the Trump administration.
But for all their travails, the post-war wave of immigrants has brought impressive benefits, including their growing engagement in New Jersey political life. Vincent Prieto, born in Cuba, is speaker of the Assembly. Ravi Bhalla, the child of Indian immigrants, is Hoboken’s—and the state’s—first Sikh mayor. Another Sikh, Gurbir Grewal, also born to Indian immigrants, is the nominee for state attorney general.
There’s no questioning the positive impact of immigrants on the state’s economy. “Foreign-born workers are overrepresented in critical occupations at both ends of the earning distribution,” says Fine. Forty percent of New Jersey’s physicians, chemists and engineers are immigrants; a similar percentage holds for nursing aides and janitors. More than a third of the state’s immigrants possess a college degree or higher—slightly more than native-born Jersey residents. In 2014, immigrant households paid $6.5 billion in state and local taxes (nearly $600 million of which was paid by undocumented immigrants). According to the American Immigration Council, New Jersey’s immigrants wield $54.6 billion in annual buying power.
And in a state that saw more than 269,194 residents move elsewhere between 2010 and 2015, immigrants keep our population stable. Thanks to our latest arrivals, New Jersey remains culturally rich, gastronomically blessed, more prosperous, better educated, increasingly tolerant—and vibrant.