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Immigrants in New York City are commuting to Long Island for jobs

Foreign-born workers now make up the majority of reverse commuters.

Miguel Mane rides a bus from Jamaica to

Miguel Mane rides a bus from Jamaica to Hempstead about 6 a.m. on Wednesday, as he makes his two-hour reverse commute from his home in Brooklyn to his job in Hempstead. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

When Miguel Mane walked out of his apartment in Brooklyn at 5:02 a.m., dressed in a blue uniform with his name embroidered on the shirt, he had the sidewalk to himself as he started off on his morning commute — to Hempstead.

The 16 miles took more than two hours. One subway, one bus and a 20-block walk later, the 37-year-old Dominican immigrant punched a timecard at the apartment complex where he makes $25.30 an hour as a handyman, a union job with benefits. 

"When tenants find out where I live," Mane, of Bushwick, said through an interpreter, "they'll ask me why I'm commuting from so far away."  

His answer: "I go where the job is."

Today, foreign-born workers such as Mane make up half of New York City-to-Long Island commuters — 51 percent, according to an analysis of census figures for Newsday by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a labor-backed New York think tank. Less than a generation ago, workers born in the United States made up almost 53 percent of the reverse commuters.

From 2000 to 2016, the total number of reverse commuters increased approximately 9,000 — from about 107,000 to roughly 116,000, or 8.5 percent. Of the 2016 number, 59,500 were immigrants and 56,500 were born in the United States. In 2000, the breakdown was 50,500 immigrants and 56,500 born in the United States.

Of the increase in immigrant workers, roughly 80 percent have jobs in Nassau County, according to U.S. Census statistics, which do not make a distinction whether a person is legally permitted to work in the United States under immigration law.

Many foreign-born workers are choosing to commute rather than move because they put a high value on their family and friends in the city, said Mitchell L. Moss, an urban policy and planning expert.

"Many immigrants prefer to stay in communities where they have family and support systems — and commute to work — rather than uproot just for a job," said Moss, a professor at New York University. In New York City, he said, “there are so many stable immigrant-based communities."

Among reverse commuters coming from the city, Jamaica, China, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Dominican Republic make up the top countries of origin, according to the census data.

Mane, who is a permanent resident, has worked at the apartment complex for most of the decade or so he has been in the United States. He rides the subway and bus — the cost of his weekly unlimited MetroCard is about $32 — because the Long Island Rail Road is too expensive. Driving isn't ideal either: He would have to find parking and pay for gas, oil changes, car repairs and auto insurance.

Still, the primary reason that Mane doesn’t move to Long Island is because he wants to be close to his 15-year-old boy, who lives with Mane’s ex-wife in Manhattan.

“I have a son and I no longer live with his mother, but I feel like I need to stay close to him so I go where the job is,” said Mane, who started off as a porter. 

The immigrant reverse commuters are working in a range of fields, from lower-skilled jobs in building maintenance and food preparation to white-collar careers in engineering and architecture, statistics show.

Health care is important to the Island's economy and a high number of reverse commuters — immigrant and U.S.-born — are filling jobs in that sector, said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the institute's Immigration Research Initiative.

Immigrants are at both ends of the spectrum: They are doctors and home health care aides, he said.

Dr. Kelvin K. Wong, for example, is a chief resident at North Shore University Hospital/Long Island Jewish Medical Center. He lives in lower Manhattan and is able to park on the street because he needs to leave so early to arrive on time for his 7 a.m. start time.

Working the early morning means Wong, who was born in Hong Kong and raised in Brooklyn, misses the gridlock. He wasn't so lucky when he had to do the night shift and he needed to drive in the same direction as Long Islanders returning from Manhattan. A 35-minute trip without traffic could be an hour and a half or more.

"If it's on a night shift, it ends up being the worst, because I'll be commuting with traffic," said Wong, 29.

For immigrants, commuting for work has both an upside and a downside, Kallick said. 

“The good part is that immigrants often fill in gaps in the labor force,” he said. “The bad part is that Long Island may not seem as attractive a place for immigrants to live, even if they work there.”

The Island could do more to get immigrants to put down stakes, Kallick said.

“Many of the things that would make Long Island more attractive for immigrants are the same things that would make it more attractive for young adults in their 20s and 30s: A bigger range of housing options, more walkable downtown areas, more local nightlife, and a more diverse cultural experience.”

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