WHEN Goya Foods Inc. started up in the late 1930s, few businessmen would have foreseen that the company would become a global manufacturing and distribution company - with offices and plants in New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Spain. Buoyed by the rising influx of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, Goya has grown in the last decade from 900 employees to 1,500, says Rafael Toro, a company official. Headquartered across the Hudson River from Manhattan in Secaucus, N.J., Goya is the largest Hispanic-owned business in the Greater New York area, and one of the largest in the nation.
The company's mainstays are rice and bean products, reflecting the culinary heritage of many Hispanic peoples.
Hispanics, along with blacks and Asians, represent the backbone of New York's population growth during the past decade. And that was true not just in New York City, but in many adjacent communities in New Jersey, Connecticut, and on Long Island.
"The immigrants are the economic spine of this city, and the promising base for New York's economic recovery," says Louis Winnick, author of a new book, "New People in Old Neighborhoods: The Role of New Immigrants in Rejuvenating New York's Communities." Without the immigrants, says Mr. Winnick, New York would be much smaller than its current 7.3 million, perhaps "down to 5.5 million people," and a ghost of its former greatness.
He notes that most of the city's vacant offices are in upscale midtown Manhattan - where a predominantly white population works - rather than in the outer boroughs where most of the newer immigrants settled.
The newcomers are also evident in Manhattan. A news vendor in the midtown area who arrived here five years ago from Pakistan says he's been able to save enough to "bring over all of my family."
New York seemed "a promising place to work" says a young Indian man who came to the United States 10 years ago and briefly lived in Georgia. Now he runs a small retail shop on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.
Exactly how many immigrants have come? Federal and local agencies count the newcomers in different ways. Rosemary Scanlon, chief economist for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, reckons that some 1 million legal immigrants settled here during the 1980s; Winnick says that when illegal immigration is added, the total is between 1 million and 2 million. He says 500,000 immigrants joined the local labor force during the decade, and another 100,000 are self-employed - adding an estimated $20,000 p
er person to the economy.
Whatever the actual head count, experts say the economic impact of immigration has been substantial:
*-Immigrants have revitalized housing markets in lower-income areas.
*-They have opened thousands of new shops and small businesses.
*-They now dominate entire economic sectors. According to a city official, Chinese and Dominican workers now comprise much of the work force in many garment factories; Greeks own scores of coffee shops; Koreans run many greengroceries; Mexicans and Salvadorans deliver the pizzas; Arabs own the newsstands. And Russian Jews own or run leather-goods stores.
"On a short-term basis, the immigrants [in the Greater New York area] really boosted the moribund housing market, which had fallen into disrepair," says James Hughes, a professor of urban planning and policy development at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. "In the 1970s you had an abandonment of a lot of housing in older industrial neighborhoods." The immigrants have "kept those housing markets viable," he says.
Immigrants are also providing needed workplace muscle. Mr. Hughes says that in northern New Jersey (part of the metropolitan economic area) the work force will have one-fifth fewer workers in the 25-to-34 age group during the 1990s, because of demographic changes. Moreover, the rate at which workers enter the job market will be tapering off. So who is stepping into the gap? Largely newcomers, Hughes says.
Brooklyn, the largest of the city's five boroughs, grew by 3.1 percent during the 1980s, to some 2.3 million residents. But it also lost 16 percent of its non-Hispanic white population, city planners say. Its Hispanic population grew by 18 percent, and Asian population by 136 percent. In both cases immigrants made up a large part of the increase. The result: the borough has attracted many of the workers needed to staff its more than 2,700 industrial companies.
Unfortunately, current immigrants are arriving at a time of economic slump. Many of them will require costly public assistance or other city services before they can find jobs. Moreover, manufacturing and retail, the two sectors where immigrants traditionally look for work, are shrinking here.
Professor Hughes says immigration could have a negative impact on blacks. The 1990s, he says, offer a "window of opportunity" for blacks to move into the work force, as the number of white males shrinks. But gains for American-born blacks, he says, could be hindered by gains by immigrants.
"Current immigration policy is totally out of step with the labor needs of the US," says Vernon Briggs, a labor economist with Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "The US is making a total error in believing we can have a low-skilled, low-wage work force" based on bringing in workers from the third world. Mr. Briggs says New York lost 600,000 blue-collar jobs since 1960; yet immigrants - who will work long hours at very low pay - are vying with native-born blacks for the jobs that remain.
His view does not seem to be winning the day, however. Congress recently altered the law to allow more immigrants in the 1990s.