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Panel hears the good, and bad, of Missouri's approach to immigrants

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 16, 2012 - Giovanni Madriz, pastoral associate at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in St. Louis, supports regional and state efforts to improve Missouri’s image when it comes to attracting and encouraging legal immigrants.

But as he told a state Senate committee on Thursday, success also will rely on changing the anti-immigrant attitudes of some average Missourians.

Madriz said his 8-year-old daughter already has become aware that when she speaks Spanish in public, she often attracts stares and “not always a friendly stare.”

While at a St. Louis County bar for a couple drinks, Madriz said he and a Spanish-speaking friend attracted epithets from a young woman who called them “wetbacks’’ and shouted for them to speak English.

Madriz was among a parade of people – from public officials to immigration experts to immigrants themselves – who appeared before the Missouri Senate’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Immigration.

The special committee is holding hearings on how the state currently treats immigrants and how it can make Missouri more attractive to immigrants. Thursday’s hearing downtown in the offices of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association was the first. Additional hearings are to be held over the next month in Kansas City and Jefferson City.

Denny Coleman, chief executive of the St. Louis County Economic Council, said in an interview after he testified that the economic stakes in attracting legal immigrants are significant. 

Neighboring states, he said, are “putting out the ‘welcome mat’ more aggressively.”

Coleman has been involved in a regional steering committee looking more closely at how to attract and retain immigrants. He cited the neighborhood redevelopment launched in parts of south St. Louis and south St. Louis County by significant settlements of Bosnian, Asian and Hispanic immigrants.

Such activity has revitalized parts of the region, he said. For future economic growth, Coleman added, “We need the population and we need the talent’’ that new immigrants can provide.

Panel offers hints of legislative shift

But several speakers cited actions by the Missouri General Assembly in recent years that are seen as anti-immigrant, such as the successful legislative effort to persuade voters in 2008 to designate English as Missouri’s “official language’’ that must be used for official proceedings and public meetings.

And some talked of reports of legal immigrants being improperly barred from obtaining a drivers license because of local officials’ confusion about the documents required.

Senate panel chairman John Lamping, R-Ladue, said that many changes have been made in the state's English-only mandate, so that immigrants can take their written drivers exam in various languages. And he emphasized that court proceedings do take into account language barriers, by providing interpreters.

Lamping added that sympathetic legislators also need to do a better job of communicating to the public -- and immigrants -- when an immigration-related bill are likely to pass and when they're not.

In many cases, he said, measures deemed anti-immigration are “not going to pass.”

One panel member, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, said later that she was committed to helping create “an environment that is inviting” for immigrants.

But Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, cautioned that she has seen much anti-immigrant fervor in Jefferson City and that she was wary of how much the special committee could achieve. “This is a unique deviation from the policies I have seen during my tenure’’ as a legislator, Chappelle-Nadal said.

Still, she added, the hearings are “a good move forward.”

Emphasis on immigration's economic boost

Tim Nowak, the executive director of World Trade Center St. Louis, said Lamping’s panel offered a prime opportunity to show how immigrants provide an economic boost to the St. Louis region.

He pointed out that St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley initiated a steering committee to learn why the St. Louis region attracts fewer immigrants than other big cities and what could be done to change course.

When asked if the General Assembly lately has put too much emphasis on combating illegal immigrants, Nowak praised Lamping’s panel.

“I can’t speak for what we do statewide,” Nowak said. “Our goal here is to share that we here in St. Louis … better understand the economic contributions of immigrants to the community. The data are there. And from an entrepreneurial standpoint to globally competitive multinational companies here, they’re important to the region.”

That “data” include a report from Jack Strauss, the director of St. Louis University's Simon Center for Regional Economic Forecasting Research. Strauss told Lamping’s panel that the state’s slower growth correlates with the lack of immigration.

“States and cities that are growing quicker have substantially more immigrants,” Strauss said. “At the same time, they’re generating jobs for these immigrants. Equally importantly and perhaps more importantly, native-born Americans in these states and in the region also are experiencing higher wages, lower unemployment growth and more job creation.”

The reason for that, Strauss said, is that immigrants bring “very necessary work skills.” Immigrants, Strauss said, pay taxes, supply labor and demand goods and services. And they’re more likely to be “high skilled” with advanced degrees.

“For instance, in St. Louis they work at Monsanto. They work at the Danforth Center. They work at the universities,” Strauss said. “At Washington University – one of our premiere institutions – basically 50 percent of their (personnel in the) genetics department or biology department, that’s tops in the world, is from other countries. Immigrants tend to bring some of these needed skills to the region and the state.”

Call for pro-immigration approach

But others pointed to a perceived lack of a “welcoming environment” in Missouri, such as how the state regulates certain professions.

Anna Crosslin, head of the International Institute, brought up the example of a dentist who sought to immigrate to Missouri. He found out that he had to go back to dental school to work in the United States -- and the only dental school in the state is in Kansas City.

“So if you live anywhere else in the state of Missouri and you want to go to dental school, you have to relocate to be able to do that,” Crosslin said. “He was able to find that there were other states in the nation that would allow him to sit for the dental exam and take it at that point (without going back to school). And so he relocated.”

“We have to start looking at these issues and why rules and regulation are the way they are,” Crosslin said.

James Qin, who emigrated from China 25 years ago, said that immigrants who already have successfully settled in Missouri are eager to help public officials come up with ways to serve and attract new immigrants.

“Please include us,’’ he said in an interview, praising St. Louis as a great place to live and raise a family.

He noted that most people in the United States hail from immigrants. Regardless from what country people come from, Qin said, “At the end of the day, we are all Americans.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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