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Perception, Policy, and Migration

The psychogeographies of immigration misplace efforts to help foreign-born populations.
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Sunset over Manhattan as seen from Long Island, New York. (Photo: Fraser Mummery/Flickr)

Sunset over Manhattan as seen from Long Island, New York. (Photo: Fraser Mummery/Flickr)

Like economics, geography as an abstraction of human behavior gets lost in the data. I suppose geographers could map the gap between perception and reality, which would be useful. Geography is also a way to approach other social sciences as well as hard sciences. The "geographic" refers to a unit of analysis, a spatial take on a given research question. Political scientists analyzing spatial patterns, for example, perform "political geography." At its most pedantic, geography is the trivia of place names. But geography as a social science is a model of how humans perceive the world around them, their environment. Even that definition infringes upon other disciplines, psychology and anthropology (i.e. psychogeography). The United States geography of immigrant social services:

The scarcity of immigrant services in suburban and rural parts of the state is partly the product of misperception, advocates say: Government agencies, foundations and others who provide financing for such services have not fully realized that immigrants are a significant and needy presence in these areas.

“There are misconceptions about the suburbs, that they’re bedroom communities and everybody works in the city,” said Pat Young, the program director for the Central American Refugee Center, a legal services and advocacy group based in Hempstead, N.Y. “Well, the majority of Long Islanders work in Long Island, which is why a lot of immigrants are moving here.”

Mr. Young said that the ignorance was highlighted last year during the unaccompanied minors surge, when, he said, some public officials in Nassau County seemed perplexed about why so many of the children were headed there. (Long Island has one of the largest Central American populations of any region in the country.)

Because immigrants are supposed to be found in gateway cities such as New York, foreign-born residents in suburbia or rural areas lack services. Humorously ironic, the dominant migration narrative of our time is urbanization. The mental maps of the wealthy, white suburbanites drive policy. Hysteria about the unGreat Migration from Long Island to Big City:

It is well documented that some communities have lost more than half of their millennial population as compared to 10 years ago. As a result, we need to implement new strategies in order to retain and attract talent to the region. On March 13, the Suburban Millennial Institute will be holding a conference at Hofstra University aimed at doing exactly that. We need to cultivate the next generation of local entrepreneurs, and work with our partners in government to make the region affordable for first-time homebuyers.

Long Island should address the needs of its growing immigrant population. Instead, advocates focus on brain drain and retaining the millennial population. Policy serves people who might leave instead of those who are coming in droves.

A less normative take, Long Island's perception of migration geography follows the paths of its native daughters and sons. Parents discuss with each other the location choices of their children and then pull hard on local political levers. The needs of other residents get lost in the shuffle.

Will the real Long Island please stand up. There exist three geographies to any one place: Legacy, newcomer, and expat. Born and raised, the legacy demographic dominates the policy discussion. Competing for the political crumbs are in-migrants and out-migrants. What say have these outsiders? Little to none. On a good day, immigrants rate as well as those who left.