Rust-Belt Cities Compete for Immigrant Workers

Image: Rust-Belt Cities Compete for Immigrant Workers The Pittsburgh skyline along the Allegheny River.

Monday, 13 May 2013 03:34 PM

By Melanie Batley

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Midwest cities led by Detroit, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh are working to attract immigrant workers to boost business and the reverse economic decline caused by drops in their populations.

The efforts to attract immigrants to the mostly manufacturing regions are in stark contrast to other areas around the country that fear a tide of immigration could displace local workers, The Wall Street Journal reported.

"We've had neighborhoods decimated by population loss, and the only way we rebuild is by bringing new people here," Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto told the Journal.

Between 2000 and 2011, the Rust Belt, stretching from western Pennsylvania to the Mississippi River, had 18 of the 25 fastest-shrinking U.S. cities, and they had significantly fewer foreign-born residents at a time when they soared by 25 percent in the United States.

In St. Louis, a city whose population dropped by nearly two-thirds since its peak in the 1950s, the local economic development agency hired a full-time employee to launch the city's first programs to draw in foreign-born workers.

Professors at universities in St. Louis are working on online outreach efforts and have opened a welcome center to help with training and language skills. St. Louis expects to attract both highly skilled workers to meet company shortages as well as low-skilled workers willing to do jobs most native-born residents won't, the Journal reported.

Meanwhile, Detroit is already ahead of many cities in their efforts to recruit immigrants, benefiting from the nonprofit Global Detroit, which has raised over $5 million for immigrant programs.

Its three employees are working to keep international students from leaving while running campus events. They also produce webinars to help employers navigate the visa process and launched an 11-class course on the basics of running a small business.

In Pittsburgh, a local nonprofit called Vibrant Pittsburgh recruits highly skilled foreigners from national conventions, sends emails to immigrant community groups about job openings in the city, and, since last June, has handed out $100,000 in grants to 25 local community groups that focus on immigrants, the Journal reported.

While these early efforts appear successful, the cities are forced to contend with traditional patterns of immigration, which researchers say are determined not only by economic opportunity but are also strongly tied to family connections. However, if cities are successful at attracting new groups, more flow could come from relatives who follow.

"It is mostly the economic opportunities, and once the pioneers go and find jobs, the social networks kick in," Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told the Journal.

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