St. Louis has long benefited from immigrants. At the turn of the 20th century, St. Louis had almost 600,000 inhabitants, making it the fourth largest city in the nation behind New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. And of those people, almost 20 percent were foreign-born and more than 40 percent had foreign-born parents.
But as the century continued, St. Louis saw its immigrant population drop precipitously. Even though we continue to benefit from the contributions of immigrants such as the CEOs of Monsanto, Sigma-Aldrich and Express Scripts, today we rank No. 42 among top metro areas for percentage of immigrants in our population.
That is part of the reason St. Louis is stagnating economically in comparison with other areas that have maintained or increased their percentage of foreign-born population. Of interest are the results of research done for the Mosaic Project, a regional effort to make St. Louis the fastest growing U.S. metropolitan area for immigration by 2020. It found that, in comparison to native-born Americans, immigrants are
- 60 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs
- 44 percent more likely to have a college degree
- three times more likely to be highly skilled
- 130 times more likely to have an advanced degree
- earning 25 percent more in wages.
It would be hard to argue, then, that immigration is bad for St. Louis or for the state at large.
And yet some are saying that, especially many of our representatives in Jefferson City. Recently, a bill was filed that would prevent undocumented children from receiving in-state tuition at Missouri universities. This might be good politics, but it is misguided policy.
A recent report by the Kiplinger Washington Editors asked the question, “What will America look like in 20 years?”
Well, by 2020, minority children will account for a majority of school-aged children in the United States. And by 2028, more than half of 18-29 year olds will be from minority groups.
Does it make sense, then, for us to do anything that impedes their education? Is it in our best interest to have a large number of undereducated young people among us in a world that every day requires more education to succeed? And why do we remain fixated on legal status when we answer these questions?
My own parents came to the U.S. from Cuba in the early 1960s after Fidel Castro took over the island. he only reason I myself am not the child of “illegals” is that the United States government made a political decision to accept Cubans. That decision meant I was not denied access to advantages like Pell Grants, so I was able to access what remains the greatest higher education system in the world. And because I got that education, I can fully contribute to this country that welcomed my parents with open arms.
To this day, my father will not permit anyone in his presence to disparage the United States in any way, because, as he says, what other country would have taken in a 17 year old with no money, no language, no prospects, and afforded him the opportunity to get an education and make a life for himself?
Every day I see people just like my father at Casa de Salud: Men and women who, in many cases, left their countries of origin because they could not find a job or because they feared for their lives. They have come to the United States of America because it beckons with opportunity for them, and most importantly, for their children. This is what American exceptionalism looks like: the country that welcomes strangers, gives them the tools by which they can use their God-given talents to strive, and then reaps the benefits of their success. May it always be so.
Jorge Riopedre heads Casa de Salud, a nonprofit that provides health-care services.