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How Can Rust Belt Cities Attract More Immigrants?

Communities might roll out the red carpet for the foreign-born, but the more welcoming disposition doesn't do the trick.
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Reading High School in Reading, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Justin Waits/Wikimedia Commons)

Reading High School in Reading, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Justin Waits/Wikimedia Commons)

Rust Belt cities—in Canada and the United States—are obsessed with demographic decline. Population drops of 50 percent or more from the peak are commonplace. Perceived as an existential threat, organizations such as the Welcoming Economies Global Network endeavor to reverse the ebbing tide:

In addition to growth in Main Street businesses, immigrants are at the source of most of the population growth for America’s 50 largest metros, and virtually all the growth in Rust Belt cities. As Rust Belt cities seek to combat a half-century of population loss, there is no other urban policy or solution that can hold a candle to the impacts that foreign-born immigrants and refugees have had on stabilizing and reversing population loss in America’s cities.

Population growth is a strange goal. The dropping numbers represent an outcome, not an input. The loss is an effect, not a cause. Case and point: the population of Rust Belt Reading, Pennsylvania, turned around. As it increased, so did the poverty rate. Hispanics, mostly from New York City, streamed into the region. Reading was growing, but sported the worst poverty in the entire country. Using the logic of We Global, the uptick in population causes poverty. Why would any Rust Belt city want that?

Yet population change remains a major concern and the cities in the We Global network bend over backwards in order to lure immigrants. Most initiatives entail efforts to increase tolerance for foreign-born neighbors and appear more welcoming. Will that work? No one really knows, at least in the U.S. The perspective in Canada:

Margaret Walton-Roberts, a geographer with the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University, has analyzed the success and failure of local immigration policies in “second-tier cities.” Her focus is Kitchener-Waterloo, a former manufacturing hub that now faces challenges a lot like Hamilton’s – a smaller, older population that is straining the city’s fiscal resources.

She and other scholars have found that those with a decent chance of attracting and keeping immigrants are the ones with universities, colleges or teaching hospitals. There’s very little influx to cities without post-secondary education. So Hamilton (home to a university, a teaching hospital and two colleges) and Kitchener-Waterloo (two universities and a college) have done well – especially because immigrants tend to seek home ownership at high rates and find houses increasingly less affordable in big cities. A smaller place with a campus hits the sweet spot.

“The role of the university is a really interesting one,” Dr. Walton-Roberts says. “As we were doing the research into second-tier cities and interviewing new immigrants, what came out was this interesting intersection between new immigrants who were also students.”

If your town has a university, forgo the pomp and circumstance. Do nothing. Spend public and private money on more pressing issues. Don't chase another talent attraction boondoggle. Besides, seeking immigrants to boost the population is downright offensive. Foreign-born women can do a lot more than bear children. Look at how the migration from Mexico has changed:

“Mexicans migrating to the United States today tend to have higher economic status, are older, are more likely to be women (and) have greater English language fluency,” the study by Rogelio Saenz, a policy fellow of UNH’s Carsey School of Public Policy, states.

They are better educated, too. However, better educated women with higher economic status (as well as older) have lower birth rates. So Rust Belt cities will have to settle for a significant economic boost instead of population growth.

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