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Immigrants Revitalize the Rust Belt
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.
In Rust Belt communities 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, Baltimore’s population actually increased, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The increase was attributed in part to growing international migration. Detroit is infamous for its steep population decline since 1950.
But the drop would be even more significant if it were not for an 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.
Immigration isn’t revitalizing only cities; newcomers also inject life into rural American communities that might otherwise be vanishing. Rural Iowa has lost population every decade since 1920 – in fact, there are fewer people in rural Iowa now than there were a century ago. But immigrants have sustained some towns. Between 2000 and 2010, Iowa’s Latino population increased by 84 percent, while the total state population increased only 4 percent over the same decade. As other cities in southeastern Iowa have declined, towns such as West Liberty (population 3,742) have a stable population and economy because of immigrants.
In addition to supporting communities that are experiencing overall population loss, immigrants are making disproportionate contributions to Rust Belt economies, particularly to Rust Belt cities such as Detroit, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.
As they have throughout much of U.S. history, immigrants make up a disproportionate share of our country’s entrepreneurs. Their business initiative is evident in some Rust Belt commercial corridors, where 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. Nationally, immigrant-owned small businesses employ 4.7 million people and generate $776 billion in income. Immigrants’ propensity for business ownership is even more pronounced in the Rust Belt than in the country as a whole.
In order to realize their full potential economic impact on the Rust Belt, unauthorized immigrants need legalization and a path to citizenship. Without this, they live in a climate of fear even as they help struggling U.S. cities and towns survive. It is up to national policymakers to reform our immigration system so that newcomers can support their families and make a fuller economic contribution to the nation – particularly to the cities and towns that need it most.
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