Immigrants Injecting Life Into the Rust Belt

In places like Baltimore, Detroit, and rural southeastern Iowa, immigration has slowed — and in some cases reversed — decades of population loss.

 Mexican immigrant works on a housing development on May 3, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. The resurgent housing market has helped drive down unemployment nationwide for American workers but also for undocumented immigrants, many of whom work in construction.
National Journal
Andrew Wainer
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Andrew Wainer
Oct. 29, 2013, 2 a.m.

Amid the de­bate over po­ten­tially the biggest re­form of im­mig­ra­tion law in 50 years, Amer­ic­an com­munit­ies strug­gling with dec­ades of pop­u­la­tion loss and eco­nom­ic de­cline are be­ing re­vital­ized by new­comers. The eco­nom­ic con­tri­bu­tion of im­mig­rants in high-skilled fields is re­l­at­ively well known, but less ac­know­ledged are the con­tri­bu­tions that blue-col­lar im­mig­rants play in re­vital­iz­ing de­pressed com­munit­ies and eco­nom­ies, both as manu­al laborers and small-busi­ness en­tre­pren­eurs.

An­drew Wain­er is a seni­or im­mig­ra­tion-policy ana­lyst for the Bread for the World In­sti­tute.In Rust Belt places such as Bal­timore, De­troit, and rur­al south­east­ern Iowa, im­mig­ra­tion has slowed — and in some cases re­versed — dec­ades of pop­u­la­tion loss. In Ju­ly 2012, after 60 years of pop­u­la­tion de­cline, the Census Bur­eau re­por­ted an in­crease in Bal­timore’s pop­u­la­tion. The in­crease was at­trib­uted in part to grow­ing in­ter­na­tion­al mi­gra­tion. De­troit is in­fam­ous for its pop­u­la­tion de­cline, which has con­tin­ued since 1950. But it would be worse if it were not for the in­flux of im­mig­rants from Lat­in Amer­ica. Between 2000 and 2010 De­troit lost 237,000 res­id­ents — 25 per­cent of the total pop­u­la­tion in just 10 years. But the city’s south­w­est im­mig­rant neigh­bor­hoods, an area known as “Mex­ic­an­town” ac­tu­ally in­creased in pop­u­la­tion. While the city lost 41,000 whites and more than 185,000 blacks dur­ing this dec­ade, it gained 1,512 Lati­nos.

But im­mig­ra­tion isn’t only re­vital­iz­ing strug­gling cit­ies; new­comers also in­ject life in­to rur­al Amer­ic­an com­munit­ies that could oth­er­wise be van­ish­ing. Rur­al Iowa has lost pop­u­la­tion every dec­ade since 1920; there are few­er people in rur­al Iowa than there were a cen­tury ago. But im­mig­rants have sus­tained some Iowa towns that oth­er­wise would dis­ap­pear. Between 2000 and 2010 Iowa’s Latino pop­u­la­tion in­creased by 84 per­cent, even as the total state pop­u­la­tion in­creased only 4 per­cent over the same dec­ade. As oth­er cit­ies in south­east­ern Iowa have de­clined, towns like West Liberty (pop­u­la­tion 3,742) have a stable pop­u­la­tion and eco­nomy due to im­mig­ra­tion. West Liberty re­cently be­came the first town in the state to have a Latino ma­jor­ity.

In ad­di­tion to sup­port­ing com­munit­ies that are ex­per­i­en­cing over­all pop­u­la­tion loss, im­mig­rants — in­clud­ing low-skilled ones — are mak­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ate con­tri­bu­tions to Rust Belt eco­nom­ies. Re­search by the Fisc­al Policy In­sti­tute found that al­though im­mig­rants make dis­pro­por­tion­ate con­tri­bu­tions to the U.S. eco­nomy over­all, they make even more dis­pro­por­tion­ate eco­nom­ic con­tri­bu­tions based on their pop­u­la­tion in Rust Belt cit­ies like De­troit, Bal­timore, Pitt­s­burgh, and St. Louis. This is true more in the Rust Belt than in tra­di­tion­al im­mig­rant gate­way cit­ies like Los Angeles, Miami, and New York.

As they have been throughout much of U.S. his­tory, im­mig­rants are also a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of our coun­try’s en­tre­pren­eurs, and their busi­ness ini­ti­at­ive is evid­ent in re­vital­iz­ing Rust Belt com­mer­cial cor­ridors. Im­mig­rant en­tre­pren­eur­ship is an Amer­ic­an tra­di­tion. An­drew Carne­gie es­caped poverty as a child in Scot­land, came to the United States in 1848 and be­came a cap­tain of in­dustry and lead­ing phil­an­throp­ist. Today im­mig­rant en­tre­pren­eurs — large and small — con­trib­ute dy­nam­ism and in­nov­a­tion to the eco­nomy.

While im­mig­rants are 13 per­cent of the na­tion­al pop­u­la­tion and 16 per­cent of the labor force, they com­prise 18 per­cent of small busi­ness own­ers. Im­mig­rants’ propensity for busi­ness own­er­ship is even more pro­nounced in the Rust Belt. While 8 per­cent of De­troit res­id­ents are im­mig­rants, they com­prise 17 per­cent of all busi­ness own­ers. In Bal­timore the for­eign-born rep­res­ent 9 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion and 21 per­cent of en­tre­pren­eurs. Na­tion­ally, im­mig­rant-owned small busi­nesses em­ploy 4.7 mil­lion people and gen­er­ate $776 bil­lion in in­come.

But the ef­forts of Rust Belt cit­ies to at­tract new­comers are some­times at cross pur­poses with a fed­er­al im­mig­ra­tion-en­force­ment sys­tem that tar­gets im­mig­rant fam­il­ies, work­ers, and en­tre­pren­eurs who sup­port loc­al eco­nom­ies. In De­troit for ex­ample, im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ates say that en­force­ment and in­creased de­port­a­tions are slow­ing the urb­an re­vital­iz­a­tion in the south­w­est part of the city that oc­curred dur­ing the early- and mid-2000s.

To real­ize their full po­ten­tial eco­nom­ic im­pact in the Rust Belt, un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants need leg­al­iz­a­tion and a path to cit­izen­ship. Without this, un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants are sub­ject to liv­ing in a cli­mate of fear even as they work to help Amer­ica’s strug­gling cit­ies and towns sur­vive. While im­mig­ra­tion alone is not a suf­fi­cient policy tool for urb­an and rur­al re­new­al, it is part of the solu­tion, and there is a grow­ing body of re­search on the con­tri­bu­tions of im­mig­rants — in­clud­ing low-skill im­mig­rants — to eco­nom­ic growth and even job cre­ation for U.S. nat­ives. It is up to fed­er­al poli­cy­makers to re­form our im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem so that new­comers can sup­port their fam­il­ies and make a fuller eco­nom­ic con­tri­bu­tion to the na­tion — par­tic­u­larly in the cit­ies and towns that need them most.

Wain­er au­thored the re­port, “A Tale of Two Cit­ies (and a Town): Im­mig­rants in the Rust Belt.” He can be reached at awain­er@bread.org.

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