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Pioneer Migration

Attract one person and an entire village will follow.
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Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo: Lee Burchfield/Flickr)

Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo: Lee Burchfield/Flickr)

Many places struggle with demographic decline. Many consultants offer snake oil. Some claim to retain. Others preach attraction. All the community has to do is pay money and the brain drain will be plugged. Such advice ignores the professional study of migration. We go where we know. The pioneer migrant as a hero:

“It’s like an award. It’s like saying I win the prize because my family was the first to migrate,” says Jaqueline Portillo, director of Intipucá’s cultural center and the guardian of many of the local families’ artifacts, documents and photos. Inside her locked desk drawer are Chávez’s old passports, his divorce papers and family photos.

International migrants from El Salvador dominate the cosmopolitan profile of Greater Washington, D.C. They aren't here because of some initiative. They aren't here because Northern Virginia is more tolerant than other parts of the United States. They are here, purportedly, because of Sigfredo Chávez.

In chain migration, somebody has to be first. After the first, hundreds or thousands may follow. Regardless of what the receiving community does, the beaten path defines the flow.

In the demographically challenged Rust Belt, politicians and policymakers alike promise to boost flagging population numbers with immigrants. Baltimore is no exception:

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) has told Latinos, in particular, that she is counting on them to help Baltimore gain 10,000 families within a decade. As a first step, she signed an order in March prohibiting police and social agencies from asking anyone about immigration status — and in the order, she explicitly asked federal immigration authorities to tell anyone they arrest that they are not agents of the city.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake treats immigrants as if they are baby factories, only valuable as an uptick in the Census count. Humans moving from one country to another are much more than an occupant in an vacant house. They have ambition that Baltimore could leverage if the politicians focused on job creation instead of civic pride.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.