From Bratwurst to Bollywood: St. Louis’s New Immigrants

Indian doctors and engineers are settling in the suburbs there, helping offset decades of population decline in this Midwestern city.

Hindu Temple of St. Louis
National Journal
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Reena Flores and Alexia Campbell
Sept. 3, 2014, noon

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently vis­ited St. Louis and Fer­guson to see how Rust Belt cit­ies are chan­ging after los­ing more than half their pop­u­la­tions. In the com­ing weeks, Next Amer­ica will pub­lish a series of stor­ies about the people shap­ing the St. Louis re­gion’s fu­ture.

BALL­WIN, Mo.—In sub­urb­an St. Louis, Pra­deep Ra­makrish­nan watches Hindi movies at the mall and prays to Shiva at a Hindu temple near his home.

He lives in Ball­win, a wealthy sub­urb in west St. Louis County, just over 20 miles from the Fer­guson neigh­bor­hoods that have at­trac­ted na­tion­al at­ten­tion this sum­mer. Un­like Fer­guson and oth­er pre­dom­in­antly black sub­urbs north of the city, Ball­win is one of the mostly white com­munit­ies to the west. This is where a grow­ing num­ber of In­di­an fam­il­ies and oth­er white-col­lar im­mig­rants are set­tling as they find work in the re­gion’s emer­ging bi­otech and health care in­dus­tries. They feel more wel­come here than many Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans do.

“Every­one has been very friendly,” says Ra­makrish­nan, 49, an IT man­ager who lives in a six-bed­room house with his wife and teen­age son. “I’ve nev­er had a prob­lem.”

The In­di­an com­munity in St. Louis County grew 81 per­cent from 2000 to 2012, ac­cord­ing to census data. They are now the largest im­mig­rant group in the county, fol­lowed by those from China, Bos­nia and Herzegov­ina, and Mex­ico. As a group, the re­gion’s im­mig­rants are wealth­i­er and more edu­cated than most Amer­ic­ans and im­mig­rants in oth­er parts of the United States. About half of them have col­lege de­grees, census data shows, com­pared with 29 per­cent of all nat­ive-born Amer­ic­ans and 28 per­cent of all im­mig­rants.

Ra­makrish­nan, who was born in Mum­bai, re­ceived two mas­ter’s de­grees from Illinois State Uni­versity be­fore mov­ing to St. Louis 21 years ago for an IT job at a tech star­tup. Back then, he could only find a hand­ful of In­di­an res­taur­ants. Now he has more than 100 op­tions. So he can eat pan­eer tikka mas­ala and watch a Car­din­als base­ball game in the same day.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” says Ra­makrish­nan, who is now a nat­ur­al­ized Amer­ic­an cit­izen.

Yet St. Louis is hardly an im­mig­rant des­tin­a­tion. For­eign­ers make up only 4 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, a small num­ber com­pared with oth­er large metro areas. Im­mig­rants ac­count for 17 per­cent of the Chica­go metro area.

That’s one reas­on Ra­makrish­nan has joined nearly 400 vo­lun­teer “am­bas­sad­ors” to spread the word about what a great place St. Louis is for im­mig­rants. He re­cently or­gan­ized a group of these am­bas­sad­ors to talk to com­munity groups about eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­it­ies for for­eign­ers and their role in boost­ing the loc­al eco­nomy as busi­ness own­ers and as skilled em­ploy­ees for St. Louis-based cor­por­a­tions like Monsanto and Sigma-Ald­rich.

The am­bas­sad­or pro­gram is part of the St. Louis Mo­sa­ic Pro­ject, a re­l­at­ively new ini­ti­at­ive aimed at help­ing skilled im­mig­rants find jobs and open busi­nesses in St. Louis. The ini­ti­at­ive’s pro­grams, which tar­get people who have leg­al work status, are fun­ded by the city, the county, busi­ness groups, loc­al com­pan­ies, and phil­an­throp­ic or­gan­iz­a­tions.

Betsy Co­hen runs Mo­sa­ic from a 22nd-floor of­fice at the World Trade Cen­ter in St. Louis. On a re­cent af­ter­noon, the former mar­ket­ing ex­ec­ut­ive met with three com­munity or­gan­izers to talk about up­com­ing pro­grams, in­clud­ing one that pairs in­ter­na­tion­al stu­dents from loc­al uni­versit­ies with cor­por­ate in­tern­ships and ment­ors. An­oth­er one will provide free leg­al con­sult­ing to com­pan­ies that want to hire for­eign­ers.

“They might not un­der­stand the visa pro­cess and want to know what it takes to hire an in­ter­na­tion­al stu­dent,” Co­hen says.

An­oth­er Mo­sa­ic ef­fort has in­tro­duced dozens of skilled im­mig­rants to pro­fes­sion­als in their ca­reer field. Through the Pro­fes­sion­al Con­nect­ors pro­gram, job seekers meet for cof­fee with someone in their in­dustry for ad­vice and job leads. So far, it’s helped five people find work, says Co­hen.

One of them is Mar­cia Gar­za Fernán, a busi­ness ana­lyst from Mex­ico who had been out of the work­force for nearly eight years. Fernán had been look­ing for full-time work for months since mov­ing to St. Louis last Septem­ber. She had a ca­reer as a busi­ness ana­lyst in Mex­ico, but stopped work­ing when her hus­band’s job trans­ferred the fam­ily to Los Angeles. Her hus­band’s em­ploy­er, a Mex­ic­an crop seed com­pany, sponsored a work visa for him, but it didn’t al­low her to work.

Fernán got her green card and star­ted ap­ply­ing for jobs after her hus­band’s em­ploy­er moved them to St. Louis. But she nev­er got called back for job in­ter­views. A friend then told her about Pro­fes­sion­al Con­nect­ors, and she signed up. Fernán met for cof­fee with the own­er of a loc­al con­struc­tion com­pany, who told her what kinds of jobs were avail­able in her field. The pro­gram also helped Fernán up­date her résumé and pol­ish her com­puter skills. It made all the dif­fer­ence, she says. “I had three in­ter­views in two weeks,” says Fernan, 40, who now works as an ana­lyst for a com­pany that con­tracts with Monsanto. 

St. Louis is not a cul­tur­ally di­verse place like Los Angeles, Fernán says, but she ap­pre­ci­ates the city’s fam­ily-ori­ented at­ti­tude. “People are dif­fer­ent here,” she says. “Since I ar­rived at the air­port, people have been smil­ing at me all the time.”

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