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New committee works to make St. Louis attractive for immigrants, hopes for economic boost

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 19, 2012 - If the welcome mat immigrants find when they come to St. Louis seems dusty and a bit frayed, it could be replaced entirely in the next year, thanks to a new initiative. 

Tuesday morning, businesses, community and civic leaders and immigrants themselves gathered at the Danforth Plant Science Center for the second annual Economic Development Conference

The event, “Immigration and Innovation,” focused on the positive economic development that comes with a thriving immigration population, one that St. Louis does not have.

In opening remarks, Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley pointed out the region's positives and negatives. 

St. Louis has about 126,000 immigrants, Dooley said, making up just 4.5 percent of the population.

“Not good enough,” he said. 

The conference was backed up by a study looking at the economic impact of immigration in St. Louis by Jack Strauss, Simon chair of economics at St. Louis University. According to Strauss, a 17-member steering committee will spend the next nine months or so looking at other cities that have attracted immigrants, develop a plan and take their recommendations to civic leaders.

“We have set out to be a more welcoming and inclusive community,” Dooley said. “We have to be sure that we are welcoming and inclusive to everyone.”

Immigration and its impact

In 1970, St. Louis was the 10th largest metropolitian area. In 2010, it was 18th in population and 20th in economic growth, according to Strauss' report. Other cities in the top 20 had 40 percent faster economic growth over the last decade.

"My report shows that it's no coincidence," he said. St. Louis' decline is "due in large part to lack of immigrants. The foreign-born help cities grow."

How?

In this region, the report states, immigrants are 60 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs. They start businesses and they hire people. According to Strauss' report, more than 50 percent of immigrants' jobs in the metro are high-paying, white-collar jobs. They earn 25 percent more than American-born workers, are 44 percent more likely to have a college education and 130 percent more likely to have an advanced degree.

The St. Louis area has a mix of refugees, who often aren't well-educated, and immigrants who are highly skilled and educated. The high-skilled immigrants outnumber low-skilled immigrants 3-to-1 in St. Louis. Thanks to that, the average immigrant contributes more to the region's income than native-borns. They also have lower rates of unemployment, pay more taxes and get fewer food stamps and less cash assistance than natives. 

"Immigrants bring work skills, they specialize, they pay taxes, they buy goods in our region," Strauss said. 

But do Americans lose jobs to foreign-born workers? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, Strauss said. 

Take an Italian restaurant that hires an Italian chef over a native-born one. That American did lose out. But if the restaurant is successful, they add dishwashers and servers. 

Immigrants complement native-born workers, Strauss said, they don't necessarily replace them. 

The report puts it another way: "The St. Louis Cardinals are the 2011 World Champions, not because their recruitment focuses on St. Louis. On the contrary, they recruit the best talent from everywhere, not just the local metropolitan area."

Strauss' report found that if St. Louis had kept pace in immigration growth with other metro areas, income growth would be 4 to 7 percent higher, the region's income 7 to 11 percent higher, and housing prices would be 26 percent higher in St. Louis and 20 percent higher in St. Louis County over the last decade.  

Instead, people have been leaving the region and baby boomers have been preparing to leave the work force.

"One policy can fix this," Strauss said. "That is immigration."

A matter of perception

"This is exactly the right conversation to be having," said conference panelist Joe Reagan, president and CEO of St. Louis RCGA

But it's certainly not politically safe, he added. 

Immigration as a national topic is a polarizing one, and arriving at answers may require reframing the issue, Reagan said. There is a sense that immigrants come into communities and are bad for back yards and back pockets, and that's just not true, he said. 

It doesn't help that in St. Louis, the low number and uneven distribution of immigrants make it hard for many locals to have first-hand experience with people born in other countries, said panelist Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute

"Our low immigration numbers mean that we have to make an effort to reach out and identify ways to interact with the immigrant community," she said. 

During the panel presentation, a member of the audience asked about the lack of black people on stage. Speakers quickly pointed out that the steering committee has black members of the steering committee, but there is a perception, Strauss said, that Hispanics in particular take away work from low-skilled black people. 

He's currently working on a study looking at the specific impact immigrants have on the African-American community. So far, he said he's found that's not the case. Communities with higher numbers of Hispanics don't have higher black unemployment or lower black labor force participation, he said. Still buy-in from the black community will be essential for the initiative's success.

Immigrants can help revitalize the city, Strauss said, keep schools open and put their money into local businesses.

Another question for the panel concerned the classic "where did you go to high school" question.

When she first came to St. Louis, panelist Carmen Jacob, president and founder of NextGen Information Services, was surprised by the question. 

"You feel unwelcome by that," she said. "I don't have a problem anymore, but I did at the beginning."

The question itself is symptomatic of the low numbers of immigrants in St. Louis, Crosslin said. If more immigrants come to town, it may move from being the question to simply a question. 

"When you have a more vibrant and multinational and multilingual community, then it isn't asked as frequently," she said, "because you don't run into as many people that look like you."

Steering ahead

Specifics of where the committee is headed and what they'll recommend are hard to point out just yet, said Strauss after the morning's events.

But it's very clear, he said, that immigrants can help the St. Louis economy. A good place to start may be building on the strengths that St. Louis already has, including universities that attract students from all over the world. An internship program could help bring those students into local businesses and, hopefully, keep them there. 

Social networking will also be important, he said, encouraging foreign nationals in St. Louis to tell the story of what's here to their friends and family at home. St. Louis could also make good on the negative attention places such as Arizona and Alabama are getting with their immigration policies by contrasting the metro area as a place that's welcoming to immigrants and placing ads in Spanish-language publications in those communities, he said.

There should be a uniform messaging campaign that addresses the myths and realities of immigration, said Crosslin. Most people only get part of the story. She's often asked why immigrant business owners are given interest-free loans, and they're not, she says. Through the International Institute, they actually get loans with rates above market rate.

"We have to start giving them the whole story," she said. "We have to do it with consistent messaging and we have to do it over and over and over again."

That goes, too, for one-on-one communication. People who know immigrants and the positive things they bring to the community need to tell their friends, Crosslin said. 

"We're going to have to get a groundswell going to be able to get this message out."

Starting now

St. Louis doesn't have to wait until next year for a new welcome mat. It can start now, Reagan said, by being more welcoming. He was able to do that himself in his first few weeks of work when he got the following e-mail, used with permission:

Dear Joe Reagan,

Greetings to you!

By way of introduction my name is Essay Worabo; I have been meaning to contact you since I arrived in St. Louis last week. I recently came from Africa, Ethiopia two weeks ago. Before introducing myself in detail, I would like to attest (to) the beauty of the city I experienced in my short stay, and the energetic people I met who had a very positive outlook on the economic development. It is marvelous....

As I plan to stay and live here in St. Louis, I could not help but to think of my mentors.... It is for them that I give credit to my success. Thus, if I have to live here, I have learned that I constantly need to be surrounded by genuine mentors who can help me reach to the next step, who knows the culture, and who is willing to challenge my thinking boldly. That is the main reason I am contacting you, for you to help me find such people as I am new to this city.

Should your schedule permit, I welcome to meet with you in person either in this week or next. As a president and CEO for RCGA, provided you have many networks, I hope you know someone who can be a very good mentor during my stay in St. Louis.

Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours truly, Essay

Reagan invited 26-year-old Essay Worabo into his office to meet and the two have stayed in touch since.

Now, Worabo works in the hospitality industry and has started his own IT company. He loves St. Louis, he said after the conference, and hopes with this initiative that something even better will come for his new city.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.