Immigrants and the American Dream

28 June 1998

Malaysia is home for some 2.5 million immigrants (perhaps slightly less now following several deportations) and each year they remit billions of ringgit to their home countries. God knows how much they earn and pay and or evade in taxes.

I am not unhappy that the government will continue to deport illegal immigrants despite the situation in a neighbouring nation. My friend, Home Affairs Deputy Minister, Dato' Tajol Rosli Ghazali, who was in New York two weeks ago, told me that the policy "of not allowing new foreign workers in Malaysia would continue even though several quarters had asked the prime minister and me to rethink on the decision".

In the Big Apple, legal immigrants last year paid US$18.2 billion (RM71 billion) in taxes, about 15.5% of the state's total taxation. Illegal immigrants whom Americans call "undocumented immigrants" pay another US$1.1 billion (RM4.3 billion) according to a report released here early last month.

The report by the Urban Institute, a Washington based non-profit research organization, also says that the longer immigrants stay in New York, the more they earn and pay in taxes.

There are hundreds of Malaysians (mainly Malaysian Chinese, Indians and a dozen or two bumiputra) working in New York, either running restaurants or working in them. There are also Malaysians working in the professions, the fashion and beauty industry and other activities.

I have met many of them and they appear very, very happy. One lady (from Petaling Jaya), a hair stylist, said she had sent enough money since last summer to her mother to buy a house.

A contractor from Sitiawan went home last week to buy "cheap" construction companies using his hard-earned hard currency, the greenback. The higher rate of exchange in favour of the dollar is a boom time for Malaysian workers here. The trilingual and smart contractor told me: "I wish I have more money to take home. Everything is a good grab, well, almost a fire sale if you know the expression," He runs a small construction company here which is doing extremely well.

The Urban Institute's report also finds that immigrants who have lived in the Empire State (nickname of the state) for more than 15 years earn more on average than native New Yorkers.

New York State, with a population of 18.13 million, made up of 74.4 % white, 15.9 % black, 123% Hispanics and 3.9% Asians, is the third populous state; Californian is the first with 31.5 million and Texas (18.7 million) second. The smallest is Wyoming with 480,184 people.

The principal industries of New York are finance, manufacturing, communications, tourism and services and the main manufactured goods are books, periodicals, clothing and pharmaceuticals.

Pfizer, the maker of Viagra, has its headquarters a block away from my office at the Malaysian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Tudor City.

New York City has more museums and galleries, bookstores and ethnic restaurants than any city I know. At the people's bookstores, Barnes and Noble (booksellers since 1873), one can drink and eat while browsing or reading books. You need not buy any book or newspaper, however, you have to pay for your food and drinks.

Most Barnes and Noble bookstores are open till late at night; not even Paris can match New York in innovation and consumerism.

Like us at home there are many kinds of immigrants: Legal permanent residents called "green card holders documented immigrants and undocumented- ones and those legal immigrants who have become American citizens and have substantially different education, income levels, tax payments and, welfare benefits.

However, the report does not give an analysis of the economic contributions of immigrants to the overall United States economy (which must be substantial) or say whether the tax-paying immigrants get equal service and treatment in education, medicine, law, justice and welfare.