All eyes are on Washington as the fate of nearly 800,000 undocumented young people brought here as children dominates the debate over America’s broken immigration system. But while many focus attention on the nation’s capital, important discussion is happening this week in New York. As the UN General Assembly meets, mayors from around the United States - and the world - are gathering to discuss how cities and towns of all sizes and political stripes are competing to attract, welcome and integrate immigrants. The reason for their leadership? While D.C. politicians debate the value of immigration, local communities see the benefits firsthand.
It comes down to economics. In addition to adding diversity and cultural vibrancy, immigrants are driving economic growth and revitalization across the country.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in America’s Rust Belt. Immigrants are offsetting decades of population decline. They’re contributing millions of dollars to the tax base. They’re infusing new life into economic corridors by opening storefronts and bolstering consumer spending, and they’re reviving the housing market.
Take Dayton, Ohio. With a 59 percent increase in its immigrant population between 2009 and 2013, Dayton reversed three decades of population decline. In fact, if Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Toledo had each attracted immigrants at the same overall rate as Dayton, they would have reversed their population decline over the same period. Look at Buffalo, too. Immigrants have helped create or preserve over 3,000 local manufacturing jobs - jobs that would have vanished had it not been for the labor force the immigrant community helped bolster. Immigrants also fill critical gaps in fields like STEM and health care, where communities are not only facing shortages, but having workers in these industries creates additional jobs for people born here.
It’s not just the Rust Belt, either. In Kansas City, immigrants pay $1 billion in taxes and hold $2.5 billion in spending power - dollars that go back into the local economy. In San Jose, Calif., immigrants account for more than half of all entrepreneurs in the city. The examples extend from coast to coast. Running the gamut from Main Street business owners to international students, immigrants and their families are breathing new life into cities everywhere.
This is why in 2012, the city that built the Gateway Arch set out to become a new kind of gateway. By 2020, St. Louis wants to be the fastest-growing destination for the foreign-born.
Not to be outdone, Cincinnati recently vowed to become the “most immigrant-friendly city in the country,” launching a 21-point plan to do it. Last year, Louisville released the Global Louisville Action Plan - the culmination of a joint business and mayor’s office initiative tasked with attracting, retaining and increasing the foreign-born population and workforce.
Recognizing the economic potential, there are now more than 60 communities actively strategizing on how to create more attractive and welcoming environments for immigrants. There are more than 25 mayoral offices whose mission is immigrant inclusion and integration. They’re using immigrant integration plans like those in Pittsburgh, Atlanta and San Jose as blueprints for what they can do to maximize the economic contributions of immigrants and create an environment where all residents can succeed.
And it’s not just mayor’s offices that see the growth opportunity. The business community is joining - and even leading - these efforts as well. Chambers of commerce in Des Moines, Lancaster, Tulsa, and San Diego are just a few examples where local business leaders are thinking big on immigration and economic development.
Building on this effort, last week 25 communities won recognition of their public-private commitment to immigrant integration as part of the Gateways for Growth Challenge run by New American Economy and Welcoming America. Awardees range from Fort Wayne, Indiana and Missoula, Montana to Memphis, Tennessee and Dallas, Texas - anchoring regions large and small, rural and urban, in red, blue, and purple states alike. Together, these places have one thing in common: They understand their future depends on attracting the best, brightest and hardest-working, and making the American Dream attainable for everyone.
Kate Brick is the director of state and local initiatives at New American Economy, a bipartisan coalition of more than 500 mayors and business leaders who support immigration reform.