The Immigrant’s Role in Urban Renewal

[Originally published by the American Interest]


When it comes to immigrants, Washington has long been divided about how many and which types to allow into the United States. But for one struggling city just north of the capital, there has been little ambiguity on the matter. Since 2011, Baltimore, Maryland, has been converted by mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s efforts to welcome immigrants. The results suggest that her strategy should be pursued by similarly declining cities, and acknowledged by the federal government as a local solution to a traditionally national issue.

That year, Rawlings-Blake launched programs designed to attract immigrants, as part of a broader effort to add 10,000 new families to Baltimore. Along with shooting a promotional video, Rawlings-Blake told police officers to stop asking them for citizenship papers, funded Spanish-only classes within city schools, and hired service workers to help with financial matters. She expanded on these efforts in September with a series of recommendations that would, among other things, enable them to get mortgage loans.

These policies seem to have helped increase the immigrant population and reverse the city’s longtime decline. In the two decades prior to Rawlings-Blake’s administration, Baltimore’s immigrant population had already grown, nearly doubling between 1990 and 2010. Its overall population during this period dropped by 115,000, which makes one wonder what the city would look like without the new immigrants. Under Rawlings-Blake’s reforms, the immigrant population has further increased to 46,000, and amazingly, citywide population has as well, after having decreased in every decade since 1950.

More than just adding raw population, though, these immigrants have brought economic productivity, and at a better clip than the natives. A 2012 Fiscal Policy Institute study determined that immigrants are 9 percent of Baltimore’s population, but amount to 12 percent of workers and an astounding 21 percent of business owners. A later report found that they had higher education levels, thanks largely to the Asians who have clustered around the city’s downtown universities. Other immigrant groups—from Mexico, Peru, and various African countries—have revitalized once decrepit neighborhoods, primarily in the southeast side.

This turnaround ought to alert other cities. Baltimore, after all, is only one example in a wave of urban decline that has long stretched across America’s Northeast and Midwest regions. Charm City’s six decades of population loss occurred alongside similar losses in Detroit, Newark, Cleveland, St. Louis, and numerous others. Like Baltimore, many neighborhoods in these cities remain dangerous and under-populated, making them natural candidates to unroll their own pro-immigrant measures.

And some already have, in ways as purely intentional as Baltimore. Thanks to refugee recruitment efforts, St. Louis now has a per-capita Bosnian population lower only than Bosnia itself. Dayton, Ohio’s “Welcome Dayton Plan,” also launched in 2011, helped attract foreigners from 113 countries in its first two years. Last week, New York City passed a bill that would discourage local law enforcement from working with federal officials to deport undocumented immigrants being held for low-level crimes. Localities have also extended to immigrants various forms of identification and licensing. And earlier this year, Michigan governor Rick Snyder asked the federal government to grant 50,000 visas for high-skilled immigrants to come to Detroit. His request piggybacked off of the advocacy from groups like Global Detroit, which recognizes that immigrants are already helping the city: “Mexicantown” remains one of Detroit’s only functioning neighborhoods outside downtown, and west of that is the thriving, heavily Arabic suburb of Dearborn.

Of course, some of these measures might appear extreme even to those who are sympathetic to immigrants. For example, the idea that undocumented ones attending public schools would be taught in Spanish runs afoul of conservative principles about the importance of cultural assimilation. But the main concerns are economic. Opponents of looser policy typically charge that immigrants depress wages, and, as the Heritage Foundation famously asserted in response to Congress’s “Gang of Eight” bill, drain from public services. Such concerns are relevant in poor cities that already struggle with scarce resources.

But this opposition tends to ignore the net positives of immigration. That same year, a study by the Manhattan Institute—which often criticizes loose immigration policy, and multiculturalism in general—found that immigrants have higher levels of entrepreneurship and workforce participation, meaning Baltimore’s successes reflect a national trend. High-skilled immigrants, in particular, are tied to more economic growth; the authors note that an additional 182,000 foreign science and technology workers would have added $14 billion to GDP and $3.6 billion to government coffers in 2008. Moreover, immigrants’ ability to depress wages is limited since they tend to work in different professions than natives.

“American anti-immigrant groups have long feared the possibility that immigrants drive native-born workers out of jobs,” states the report. “However, this occurs only in the negligible proportion of occupations where native-born and immigrant skill sets overlap.” It added that immigrants have been found in some cases to elevate domestic wages overall.

Disagreements about the effects of immigration play out not only between think tanks, but across the nation, often with stark divisions between urban and rural areas. In 2010, Arizona set the debate ablaze by passing SB 1070, which gave law enforcement greater license to detain and deport illegal immigrants. Similar measures were later passed in Alabama, Georgia and several other conservative states. These laws may have been driven by old-fashioned xenophobia, but more likely they were a reaction from traditionally rural areas that in recent decades have experienced rapid growth in immigrant populations. To many residents, further accepting newcomers who might overcrowd public services and change cultural mores isn’t worth the higher GDP.

But urban areas have the density, diversity, and existing services to help dampen these problems, explaining why immigrants still flock to them as well. The foreign-born make up more than 30 percent of the population in New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and have carved out well-functioning subcultures in other global, cosmopolitan cities like Miami and Houston. There is no reason that they can’t have similar impact in places like Pittsburgh and Detroit, where immigration percentages remain in the single digits. One untold story of these struggling cities has been their demographic decline, as populations there tend to be older and less educated, with little turnover to replace those who pass away. New immigrants would fill some of the physical—and psychological—vacancies caused from this, by refilling abandoned housing, adding foot traffic to empty streets, and, perhaps counterintuitively, restoring services. One aspect of declining cities, after all, is that their infrastructure is now overextended, since it was built for larger populations. Detroit’s water services became so unaffordable for residents this past summer in part due to inefficiencies caused from maintaining a vast, aging system across a hollowed-out city. More immigrants would mean more user fees collected within existing service areas.

These and other distinctions between the nation’s Arizonas, its San Franciscos, and its Detroits, show why immigration is a context-sensitive issue. On one hand, there are U.S. areas that are already experiencing fast growth, are culturally averse to foreigners, and seek greater enforcement. On the other, there are cities where immigrants—whether documented or not—have established stable, productive communities that shouldn’t be uprooted by strict deportation laws. These same cities also generally have thriving, education-intensive industries, and are hindered by strict federal H-1B laws. And of course there are declining cities that simply need more feet on the ground.

This makes immigration a fundamentally local issue that, in the federalist tradition, would benefit from more local autonomy, rather than the strict, broad federal dictates that exist now. There is already a program in Canada that allows provinces to issue place-based visas to targeted immigrant demographics. Similar measures have been proposed in the United States, and may one day become a federal cause. But assuming that nothing this ambitious will soon emerge from Congress, it would be best for localities to craft their own immigration policies, regardless of how radical they seem to outsiders. For ones like Baltimore, this could be the very thing that finally reverses long-standing decline.