Come One, Come All

Shrinking American cities are increasingly betting their economic futures on immigration.

Buildings stand in the skyline of Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on Friday, July 19, 2013. Detroit, the cradle of the automobile assembly line and a symbol of industrial might, filed the biggest U.S. municipal bankruptcy after decades of decline left it too poor to pay billions of dollars owed bondholders, retired cops and current city workers. 
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
May 8, 2014, 5 p.m.

Each month in St. Louis, one im­mig­rant who was an en­gin­eer in his or her home coun­try but isn’t cur­rently work­ing in the field is in­vited to the En­gin­eers’ Club’s reg­u­lar net­work­ing din­ner. The prac­tice began earli­er this year, after the club met with the St. Louis Mo­sa­ic Pro­ject, a pub­lic-private part­ner­ship foun­ded by civic lead­ers to get the whole city work­ing to­geth­er to pro­mote St. Louis as an im­mig­rant-friendly place. The pro­ject has also been work­ing to make it easi­er for some 6,000 in­ter­na­tion­al stu­dents at loc­al col­leges to find jobs in the area when they gradu­ate, by per­suad­ing the Re­gion­al Busi­ness Coun­cil to in­clude in­ter­na­tion­al stu­dents in its in­tern­ship pro­gram, for ex­ample.

St. Louis is hardly alone in rolling out the wel­come mat for im­mig­rants. Over the past half-dec­ade, many cit­ies in the Mid­w­est and bey­ond have been look­ing to boost their de­clin­ing pop­u­la­tions and strengthen their loc­al eco­nom­ies by mak­ing their com­munit­ies as en­ti­cing as pos­sible to new ar­rivals from oth­er coun­tries.

Such ef­forts — from Ohio’s Wel­come Dayton ini­ti­at­ive to the non­profit Glob­al De­troit — have be­come so com­mon, in fact, that groups rep­res­ent­ing 20 metro areas, from Buf­falo, N.Y., to Min­neapol­is, will head to the Glob­al Great Lakes con­fer­ence in Pitt­s­burgh this June, where they’ll swap ideas on pro­mot­ing im­mig­ra­tion as an eco­nom­ic-de­vel­op­ment op­por­tun­ity. Pitt­s­burgh’s new may­or, Wil­li­am Peduto, who made wel­com­ing im­mig­rants part of his cam­paign plat­form, will speak at the event.

The surge in court­ing im­mig­rants aligns with the de­cline in pop­u­la­tion that many formerly bust­ling met­ro­pol­ises have seen in re­cent years. More than 400,000 res­id­ents left the Mid­w­est between April 2010 and Ju­ly 2012 alone, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 re­port from the Chica­go Coun­cil on Glob­al Af­fairs, an in­de­pend­ent re­search or­gan­iz­a­tion. De­troit lost a quarter of its people between 2000 and 2010, ac­cord­ing to an ana­lys­is of census data con­duc­ted by the Coun­cil of State Gov­ern­ments Mid­w­est. Cit­ies such as Pitt­s­burgh have half the pop­u­la­tion today that they had in 1950. In ad­di­tion, while at the turn of the last cen­tury im­mig­ra­tion helped drive eco­nom­ic growth in cit­ies such as St. Louis and Pitt­s­burgh, in re­cent years im­mig­rants have been more likely to head to the Sun Belt than the Rust Belt. As nat­ive-born young people have moved else­where and im­mig­ra­tion has lagged, cit­ies and states have been left with shrink­ing, aging pop­u­la­tions, of­ten com­posed mainly of the white des­cend­ants of Europeans who ar­rived a cen­tury ago.

The pop­u­la­tion loss has been trau­mat­ic, says Anna Cross­lin, pres­id­ent and CEO of the In­ter­na­tion­al In­sti­tute of St. Louis, a refugee- and im­mig­rant-re­set­tle­ment agency. “Be­cause of that, there simply aren’t enough in­di­vidu­als to buy goods and ser­vices that oth­ers in the com­munity want to be able to sell,” she says. A de­clin­ing pop­u­la­tion skewed to­ward re­tir­ees also means a smal­ler tax base.

St. Louis civic and busi­ness lead­ers got ser­i­ous about mak­ing a pro-im­mig­ra­tion strategy part of the city’s eco­nom­ic-de­vel­op­ment ef­forts in 2012, spurred by re­search from then-Saint Louis Uni­versity pro­fess­or Jack Strauss. Through stat­ist­ic­al ana­lys­is, Strauss found that St. Louis’s in­come growth would have been great­er, hous­ing prices would have been high­er, and more new busi­nesses would have been formed over the pre­vi­ous dec­ade if im­mig­ra­tion had oc­curred at a high­er rate, com­par­able to those of oth­er ma­jor cit­ies.

Strauss’s re­port also noted that im­mig­rants to the U.S. now tend to be either lower-skilled or high­er-skilled than nat­ive-born work­ers. Be­cause they have dif­fer­ent skills, those im­mig­rants tend to com­ple­ment, rather than sup­plant, ex­ist­ing work­ers — a find­ing that cuts against the com­mon be­lief that more im­mig­rants will mean few­er jobs and lower wages for loc­als. In fact, in earli­er work, Strauss had ana­lyzed census data and found that im­mig­ra­tion from Lat­in Amer­ica im­proves wages and job op­por­tun­it­ies for Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans liv­ing in the area.

Im­mig­rants also of­ten cre­ate jobs for them­selves and oth­ers: The Small Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion has found that im­mig­rants are more likely than oth­ers to start and own their own busi­nesses. And a 2010 study by Mc­Gill and Prin­ceton re­search­ers found that im­mig­rants pat­ent in­ven­tions at twice the rate of nat­ive-born res­id­ents be­cause they’re more likely to have ex­pert­ise in sci­ence, tech­no­logy, en­gin­eer­ing, or math.

Loc­al busi­ness and civic lead­ers ob­vi­ously can’t re­form the na­tion’s im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem — only the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can in­crease the num­ber of em­ploy­ment-based visas avail­able or cre­ate a path to cit­izen­ship for un­doc­u­mented res­id­ents. And, un­like Canada, the U.S. doesn’t al­low people to ap­ply for res­id­ency in spe­cif­ic areas of the coun­try — al­though some Mid­w­est lead­ers wish it would. (Earli­er this year, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Re­pub­lic­an, asked the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to ap­prove 50,000 ad­di­tion­al visas over the next five years for skilled im­mig­rants destined for De­troit.)

But cit­ies can do some things them­selves to bet­ter sup­port ex­ist­ing im­mig­rant com­munit­ies and to en­cour­age new ar­rivals — and they’re do­ing them. “People are re­cog­niz­ing this op­por­tun­ity right now, while our fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is deal­ing with much big­ger polit­ics,” says Steve To­b­oc­man, dir­ect­or of Glob­al De­troit and a former Michigan state rep­res­ent­at­ive. “And folks are say­ing, re­gard­less of whatever hap­pens on the na­tion­al scene, there are things we could be do­ing to im­prove our eco­nom­ic fu­ture.”

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