Immigrant New York

How immigration policies--and rezoning--are making businesses vanish in Willets Point

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Willets Point, a neighborhood in Corona, Queens that sits in the shadow of Citi Field, has long been home to a conglomeration of auto repair shops that have served as an important source of employment for many newcomers to the city from around the world. But now, the Guardian reports, some of the workers who have made a living there have disappeared, afraid to show up to their jobs amid rumors swirling about raids from agents of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

Arturo Olaya, the proprietor of a car upholstery shop in the area, told the Guardian that Willets Point workers, many of whom come from Central America, are staying home out of fear of deportation. The Trump administration's mission of cracking down on undocumented immigrants has stoked anxiety about ICE harassment and arrests among the people who keep businesses like Olaya's afloat, he says. 

It seems that NYC's status as a sanctuary city—which means the local government does not comply with federal authorities by refusing to prosecute undocumented immigrants—isn't enough to assure these undocumented New Yorkers of their safety.

One likely reason is that New York deeming itself a "sanctuary" doesn't guarantee that much protection. In fact, as Hasan Shafiqullah, supervising attorney in the Immigration Law Unit at the Legal Aid Society, explained to Brick Underground in a podcast, immigrants here both legally and without papers face the prospect of deportation if they're arrested for offenses as minor as jumping a subway turnstile or drinking a beer on the street.  

To that end, the city council is considering legislation that would strengthen the city's ability to provide a safe haven for the undocumented. The New York Times reported last week that the council held a hearing regarding nine bills, including one that would better protect people from deportation for non-violent crimes; another would limit the ability of agencies like the Human Resources Administration to disclose New Yorkers' personal information to federal authorities. 

But there's another reason auto workers are vanishing from Willets Point, a perhaps more familiar force behind the transformation of neighborhoods: gentrification. 

Back in 2009, when Queens bid farewell to Shea Stadium and Citi Field made its debut, the city issued a request for proposals to develop a 62-acre site in Willets Point, the result of which is a multi-phase plan to build housing (a portion of it affordable), retail, a school, hotel, parking, and open public space in the area. 

This has also entailed relocating many of Willets Point's auto body shops to the Bronx to make way for the new developments, but not all have been successful in making the transition. The Times spoke to some proprietors who were struggling to re-open in the new Hunts Point location who are on the verge of bankruptcy because they couldn't keep up with the costs of construction. 

What the city viewed as an unattractive industrial area, ripe for revamping alongside the brand-new baseball stadium, has also long been a source of employment for thousands of workers, many of them Latino and some undocumented. And while the City Council moves to protect workers like the ones in Willets Point by bolstering NYC's sanctuary status, it has already razed many of the shops that employed them in the name of development.