Of all the hard truths I spoke during the 2016 municipal election, none exploded more heads than my comments in support of immigration to Queens.
You may be sick of hearing me say this, but population loss poses an existential threat to Queens County. I said that two years ago, arguing in favour of attracting immigrants. But I made a critical error trying to rally support for this cause.
I had the audacity, during the mayoral candidates’ debate at the Astor Theatre, to point out that Christopher Clarke — an immigrant from England — is an immigrant. The gasps, groans and jeers from the audience made me wonder if I’d accidentally killed the man with my bare words.
By way of background, Clarke, in response to a question from the debate moderator, said attracting immigrants was not a priority for him. According to news reports at the time, I shot back: “It’s quite interesting to hear the only immigrant running for mayor is not making immigration to Queens County a priority.”
As many in the audience were losing their minds, I pleaded: “These are facts, people.” Little did I know that Queens, like the rest of North America, was entering an era where facts don’t count for much.
I bring all this up because I’m hoping, two years later, that it might be safe to talk about immigration once again. Our population continues to decline and with it, our tax base. Yes, we’ve been fortunate to welcome some new people to Queens. It’s wonderful and exciting and encouraging. But it’s not nearly enough to hold the line on our population, let alone grow it.
Why are we not imploring provincial and federal officials to consider Queens for not one immigrant family, but many immigrant families? We need people, desperately, to maintain our quality of life and ensure the institutions we depend on remain here for generations to come. It would be a win-win situation, with Queens offering new opportunities to immigrants and those same immigrants helping Queens maximize its future potential.
Chris Clarke is an immigrant and Queens was lucky to get him. While I disagreed with him on a number of fundamental issues, he has done a great deal for this community — more than most will ever know. In addition to a successful private sector career, he served as mayor twice, did tremendous work on behalf of Queens General Hospital and is now on the board of Queens Manor.
G. Cecil Day, the long-time editor of the Queens County Advance, was also an immigrant. In a presentation to council yesterday, his daughter, Beverley Day Burlock, told of her father’s struggles getting established in Canada due to his Welsh background and the physical challenges he faced due to childhood polio. Day went on to have an extraordinary career in community journalism right here in Queens. We were lucky to get him.
More recently, weren’t we lucky to get Joey Nasrallah, an immigrant from Lebanon? He’s built a successful business, supports a number of local causes and, along with his family, is actively involved in the community.
With success stories like these, why on earth wouldn’t we make immigration a priority?
Somehow the word “immigrant” has obtained a negative connotation in some quarters. I still remember, the day after the Astor debate, when a man approached me outside the Liverpool post office.
“I was going to vote for you until you said Chris Clarke was an immigrant,” he told me, pointing his finger at my chest.
“But he is an immigrant,” I responded.
“Yeah,” he snarled. “But you can’t say that.”
Listen, folks. For us to have the best chance at a bright future, every mind needs to be open and every idea needs to be on the table.