The Experience of Older Migrants in New York City

The Experience of Older Migrants in New York City

What is life like for older migrants in New York?

Most New Yorkers age 65 and older are immigrants. Many of them do not have their own home, and some live in social isolation. Older people already struggle with financial difficulties and social isolation, and when you are a migrant, these difficulties become an unbearable burden. The New York Times collected the stories of some immigrants and told what the public thinks about it.

Older immigrants now make up just over half of New York City’s population aged 65 and older. Since 2010, their numbers have more than doubled that of U.S.-born older adults, largely due to the aging of immigrants who arrived here decades ago as young workers.

Many of these immigrants say they never expected to grow old in the city. After many years of believing “tomorrow I will leave,” we are simply not ready for such a reality. Some of them are still chasing the American dream, but are long past working age. Others stayed because they couldn’t bring themselves to leave the children and grandchildren they had here, or the lives they had built for themselves.

Immigrants aged 65 and older have fueled rapid population growth in this category. In the city, according to a census analysis by Social Explore, there are about 1.4 million people over 65. There were 713,000 elderly immigrants in the city in 2022, up 57% from 2010. During the same period, the number of older U.S.-born residents increased by 25% to 678,000.

Difficulties of age and status

These seniors come from a dozen countries, including the Dominican Republic, China, Jamaica, Haiti and Colombia. They made city neighborhoods more diverse. They have helped prop up the economy, but their rapidly growing numbers also threaten to further strain limited social services and resources in a city already struggling with a migrant crisis.

While many older adults struggle with financial hardship and social isolation, older immigrants may be in the worst situation. They tend to have less education than their U.S.-born peers and are less likely to have retirement or investment income. The average annual income of an immigrant senior was $14,592. That’s about half the income of a U.S.-born senior.

On the subject: New York has free computer courses for immigrants and seniors: where to look for them

Many older immigrants are homeless after years of working low-wage jobs. They often receive less Social Security income than those born in the United States. Illegal immigrants are not eligible to receive any amount. Some older immigrants also receive limited assistance due to language and cultural barriers.

Stories of people

Francisco Palacios grew up poor. From Ecuador, he came to New York in 1986 to earn enough to someday retire in his home country.

But after being stuck in low-paying jobs in restaurants, construction and laundry, Palacios, now 70, has no savings and is simply trying to survive. On weekdays, he and other part-time workers stand on a street corner in Queens, hoping someone will hire him to paint houses. “I still feel like I have the energy and strength to work,” he says in Spanish through a translator, although he believes he has “no future.”

Cheung Gim Fung, 92, who worked as a cook in Chinese restaurants after immigrating from Hong Kong in the 1950s, feels increasingly isolated in his Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn. “I don’t speak English. I don’t speak Mandarin. I don’t speak Fujianese,” says Mr. Chung, who goes to a nearby bakery every day to sit with other Cantonese-speaking immigrants.

Support for immigrants

Some older immigrants are already mired in poverty and homelessness, and more will become unless city officials find ways to help them, said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future. It is a nonprofit organization that studies the problems of older immigrants and the state’s rapidly aging population. According to the center, there were 163,000 older immigrants living at or below the poverty line in 2022, up 37% from a decade earlier.

“Immigrants have given so much to the city in their working lives,” Bowles said. “It would be unfathomable for a city to turn its back on immigrants as they get older and their needs grow.”

David Dissegaard Kallick, director of the nonprofit research group Immigration Research Initiative, says immigrants are an important part of the local economy, accounting for about 31 percent of all goods and services sold in the state.

On the subject: It will now be easier for immigrants in New York to find a job or open a business

While retirement benefits are largely determined by the federal government, city governments and social service agencies strive to provide health care and support services to immigrants regardless of their legal status. NYC Aging, a city agency with an annual budget of $523 million, will continue to provide free meals and other programs to seniors even as the city faces financial crises, including the cost of housing migrants seeking asylum.

Protecting the rights of older migrants

But that’s not enough to meet the needs of a growing number of seniors, said Councilwoman Crystal Hudson, a Democrat from Brooklyn. As chair of the council’s aging committee, she notes that less than 1 percent of the city’s total budget is spent on services for seniors. She also worked to pass laws expanding legal protections and services for older adults. This includes developing senior centers in immigrant communities that offer programs in multiple languages.

On the subject: The New York City Council passed the Immigrant Labor Bill of Rights, guaranteeing them fair wages and protection of interests

The struggles of older immigrants have also added another layer to the complex immigration debate, with some critics saying it is the result of federal immigration policies that have failed to curb illegal immigration and attract more highly skilled workers.

Curtis Sliwa, the founder of Guardian Angels who was running for mayor in 2021, protested against undocumented migrants. But despite this, he understood the importance and seriousness of the situation. “You’re not going to deport them at 75 or 85, especially when many of them may not even have a home to return to. In fact, we are a caring people and should take care of them, but let this be a wake-up call,” Sliwa said.

On the subject: The New York City Council passed the Immigrant Labor Bill of Rights, guaranteeing them fair wages and protection of interests

Daniel Di Martino, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who focuses on public policy, said providing special benefits or privileges to older undocumented immigrants would be costly and would encourage more illegal immigration. “What message will this give to the whole world? – he said. “You can come to the United States illegally, and then they will provide you with everything you need as an elderly person.”

Most of these older immigrants arrived in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, according to Zhanna Batalova, a senior analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. Major changes in federal immigration laws eliminated long-standing entry quotas in many countries and ushered in a period of increased immigration from around the world. Most of these early immigrants later became US citizens.

Everyone has their own reasons for leaving and staying.

Gustavo Rincón came to New York in 1973 from Colombia, then worked as a draftsman for Con Edison before retiring more than a decade ago. Mr. Rincón, now 69, was considering returning to Cartagena. “I love my roots, my culture,” he said, “but I found it too hot here and the standard of living was very poor.

Sara Melendez left her five children in Ecuador in 1991 to find work in New York and support them. “I lived day by day,” Ms. Melendez said, speaking in Spanish through a translator, recalling how she worked as a seamstress in a garment factory. Today, her four children still live in Ecuador, as well as 11 grandchildren, but Mrs. Melendez, now 89 and a U.S. citizen, lives alone in a subsidized housing project on the Lower East Side.

Mrs. Melendez suffers from diabetes and says she stays here because the health care here is better than in Ecuador. She also uses the network of services for older adults provided by the social service agency Henry Street Settlement. These include a bilingual social worker, a home health aide, a nutrition monitor and a women’s emotional support group called Esperanza, or “Hope” in Spanish.

Dreams that didn’t come true

Some immigrants arrive at an older age. Many were brought by their adult children, who had become U.S. citizens, to help care for their grandchildren.

New Immigrant Community Empowerment, a Queens-based advocacy group that runs job training and development programs, has begun teaching financial, technical and life skills to immigrants. “We watch them age,” said Hildalyn Colon Hernandez, the group’s deputy director, adding that many of them “never think about the future.”

The organization is trying to help Palacios, an elderly painter, who waits on the side of the road with other handymen, even as his legs hurt and go numb. Mr. Palacios, who is undocumented, said he has not been home in Ecuador since he left nearly four decades ago because he fears he will not be allowed to return to the United States. Tears streamed down his face as he recalled not being able to see his parents and having to miss their funeral.

“I came for the American dream,” he said, “but in the end I regret that everything I tried to do here didn’t work out.”

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