How the Ellis Island Initiative Is Changing the Narrative to Welcome Immigrants in New York State

Monday April 22, 2024

The United States has seen a significant uptick in the number of individuals seeking asylum within its borders, with over 150,000 arriving in New York City alone just in the past year and a half. With nearly half a million job openings throughout New York State, immigrants and refugees potentially have many opportunities to contribute to local economies and communities. By filling employment gaps, immigrant and refugee workers will be able to contribute tax dollars and boost industries throughout the state. Welcoming new arrivals and helping them settle eases an otherwise difficult transition and fosters greater inclusion.  

Despite the state’s need for workers, however, immigrants and asylum seekers face significant barriers. Two New York counties have taken legal action against the influx of these new arrivals from New York City and even issued executive orders barring their entry altogether.   

Today, the Ellis Island Initiative is working to ensure a more welcoming New York State.  

A grantee partner of the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, the Ellis Island Initiative is a bipartisan statewide coalition in New York focused on including immigrant families and families seeking asylum in local communities and combating misinformation about immigration. Founded in 2023 by a diverse group of union members, statewide business association members, civic organizations such as local United Way affiliates, and leaders of diverse faith communities, the Initiative works to shift narratives and highlight the benefits of immigrant inclusion in communities outside of New York City.  

With support from the Fund, the Ellis Island Initiative is highlighting how new arrivals—including recent asylum seekers from the U.S. southern border—can revitalize and boost local economies and small businesses. Recently, the Ellis Island Initiative co-published a report with the Immigrant Research Initiative (IRI) on the economic impact of new immigrants and asylum seekers throughout Long Island as part of IRI’s broader research on U.S. immigration. For example, IRI’s research model predicts that for each 1,000 newly arrived immigrant workers, the aggregate annual wages paid is $27 million—a direct benefit in both the value of work produced and the spending power added to the local region in which the workers are employed. This research, which breaks down multiple states as well as multiple regions within New York State, has been featured in prominent media outlets like Newsday and PBS 

Rovika Rajkishun, who helps lead the Initiative and is herself a formerly undocumented immigrant, described the organization as “one of the most important projects I have worked on.”  

“I know firsthand the struggles of people who are seeking opportunities for a better life,” she said. “We as a state have always been welcoming to immigrants and need to continue to do that for the benefit of us all. I am deeply grateful for my life here and to raise my own family here now, and I want to see that for so many newly arrived migrants.”  

In February 2024, the Initiative began hosting regional convenings across the state to give local community members a platform for developing bipartisan efforts to welcome new arrivals in their community, offering a space for productive and inclusive conversations tailored to each county.  

The first convening took place in Rochester and was attended by community members from across the political spectrum, including leaders of the city’s faith community, elected officials, non-profits, and representatives of labor and business groups. 

Ellis Island Rochester Convening

“Today, we stand at a pivotal opportunity for the Greater Rochester region and our neighbor communities across New York State to recognize the invaluable contributions that immigrants can bring to our workforce,” said Bob Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, in a press release following the convening.  

Like many other cities in New York and across the country, Rochester faces the challenge of an aging population resulting in the city’s workforce participation dipping below pre-pandemic levels. As reported in a local newspaper article, Dave Seeley, executive director of the regional workforce development organization Rochester Works, noted that businesses “have been forced to confront one of the tightest labor markets in a generation,” highlighting the urgent need to fill employment gaps and also the benefits that immigrants bring to local industries. 

Fostering inclusive economies helps the whole community. In the same article, Aaron Metras, a member of the New York State Restaurant Association and owner of Salena’s, a local restaurant, echoed the advantages of having an inclusive workforce and the potential for newly arrived individuals to boost local businesses. “The vast majority of new immigrants demonstrate an unparalleled work ethic, and they can help fill crucial gaps in the restaurant industry, which is still reeling from the pandemic,” Metras said. “The quicker we are able to employ them, the better—for our benefit and theirs.” 

A few key priorities emerged from the convening, such as supporting apprenticeship programs and alternative pathways to stable employment, and facilitating a faster, less burdensome credential certification process, especially in industries facing employment shortages. 

The Initiative plans to continue engaging with stakeholders to foster inclusive communities and economies. Among its goals is to create working groups representative of businesses, elected officials, unions, non-profits, and faith communities that will work collaboratively toward accomplishing the groups’ outlined objectives. The Initiative is scheduled to host a convening in Syracuse on May 7 and already convened several stakeholders in Albany on March 13.  

“When stakeholders come together, like we did today, we are able to come up with concrete steps we can take to make sure that we are welcoming our new neighbors into our communities in ways that are beneficial to everyone involved,” said Mayor Malik Evans at the Rochester convening. “If we can lend a helping hand to them, and they can help us to fill the jobs we need filled, we must act.” 

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