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Immigration and the American City: A Source of Renewal, Not A Cause For Concern
by Gary Endelman

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP Amoco Corporation. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP Amoco Corporation in any way.

Biography August 2, 2000 -- Of all the reasons why nativists decry the influx of immigrants to these shores, perhaps none is more specious than the charge that such migration adds to the already heavy woes of America’s major cities where most of us live. Facts are stubborn things and they show just the opposite. As more native-born Americans flee urban life for the benefits, real and illusory, of suburbia and the Sun Belt, newcomers are flocking in, reviving old inner city neighborhoods, creating jobs, starting businesses, and serving as perhaps the most effective strategy for urban renewal that the US government has.  While it cannot be said that immigration is the sole, or even primary, reason for America’s urban renaissance, it can no longer be associated with urban decline. Those cities that have welcomed large numbers of immigrants in the past two decades are the same ones who have prospered the most and improved the quality of life for all their citizens.  If the INS and DOL want really want to help America’s cities, they should liberalize their policies, not make them more restrictive.

America’s No.1 city has the most immigrants. US Census Bureau figures show that a human tidal wave of one million newcomers over the last decade has now pushed foreign-born residents to 40% of New York City’s population. Up from 28% in 1990, the percentage of New York’s foreign-born is higher than it has been since the tidal wave of 1910. Without immigration, New York would have shrunk in size. Instead, immigration into the city has prevented neighborhood abandonment and depopulation, revitalizing neighborhoods that would have otherwise died. A 1986 study by the New York City Department of Immigration Services found that immigrants had a higher labor force participation rate, a lower rate of using welfare, a lower crime rate and an equal unemployment rate.   A 1993 New York Times report explained how immigration had saved the Big Apple: 

“Immigrants have become integral to maintaining the vitality of New York neighborhoods. According to city planners, the influx of newcomers has brought indirect urban renewal, reversing the blight that threatened New York in the 1970’s and helping to avoid serious inner-city population loss that has plagued such cities as Philadelphia and Detroit.” 

A 1997 National Academy of Sciences study reports that “immigrants add as much as $10 billion to the national economy each year.” In a landmark analysis of the relationship between immigration and urban life in America done by Economist Stephen Moore for the Hoover Institution a few years ago, Mr. Moore examined a range of variables for the 85 largest US cities over the period 1980-1994. He found that when compared with cities that had low levels of immigration (3% of foreign-born or lower) those cities with relatively high rates of immigration (20% or more) created twice as many new jobs, enjoyed higher per capita incomes and lower poverty rates and had 20% less crime.  The US cities in the most severe despair- Detroit, St. Louis, Buffalo, Rochester and Gary- had virtually no recent immigration.  During the 1980s of the twelve fastest-declining urban centers in the United States, only two, Houston and Miami, had above-average immigration, and Houston’s drop was caused almost entirely by the infamous oil bust not high immigration.  The conventional belief that immigration results in urban decay can no longer be maintained. In fact, the cities with the most intractable economic woes have almost no immigrants while those with more immigrants have found new life in the 90s.

A 1985 Urban Institute white paper on the impact of immigrants on Los Angeles found that, despite the 220,000 new Mexican immigrants that came there during the 1970s, unemployment in the City of Angels fell and per capita income rose faster relative to the national rate over the decade. Manufacturing jobs in Los Angeles grew by an amazing four times the national average with immigrants filling between one third and one half of the newly created jobs.  An estimated one fourth of the jobs filled by Mexicans would have vanished and the clothing industry would have left to Mexico according to the Urban Institute if immigrants had not been available. The report concluded that Mexican immigration had benefited California consumers through lower prices for many goods and services, thus holding down inflation below the national trend.

From 1980-1994, the fifteen cities with the largest rise in immigration saw 32% job growth versus just 7% job growth in the fifteen cities that lost immigrants.  All of the high-immigration cities gained jobs, while seven of the fifteen cities that lost immigrants in the 1980s also lost jobs. A study on immigration and unemployment done by Richard Vedder, Lowell Galloway and Stephen Moore in 1990 found that from 1960-1990 the ten highest immigration states had an average unemployment rate of 5.8% compared to 6.6% in the ten lowest immigration states.  In the 1980s California, Florida, Massachusetts, and Texas, for example, each had high immigration but lower than average unemployment; conversely, Iowa, West Virginia and Wyoming, to name but a few such examples, had virtually zero immigration but way above average unemployment throughout the period. In 1990 Stephen Moore’s Hoover Institute study found that eleven of seventeen high immigration cities had a per capita income above $15,500 but not one of thirty cities with the lowest percentage of foreign-born had a per capita income that high.  Urban Institute Economist Thomas Muller determined that personal income was higher in cities with large immigrant concentrations and smaller in those with less; interestingly, in view of the oft-repeated charge that immigrants take jobs from African-Americans, Muller also found a “strong positive correlation between the percentage of foreign-born and black household incomes.”

During the 1980s, high immigration cities gained wealth at a faster pace than low immigration cities. This is surprising, and important because, if residents of high immigration cities are wealthier and accumulating new wealth faster than their low immigration urban counterparts, then this strongly suggests that immigrants were not only helping themselves but also enriching native-born city dwellers.  In 1990, the cities with the most immigrants had an average poverty rate of 13.3%, some 20% below the 16% average poverty rate in the cities with the least amount of foreign-born residents. From 1980 to 1990, the cities that gained the largest number of immigrants had a poverty level of 13.3% versus 17.7% in cities that lost immigrants. Save for some rare exceptions, such as Omaha and Indianapolis, high poverty rates are most characteristic of large US cities with small immigrant populations. Not only that, but cities with lots of immigrants are typically low-crime not high-crime centers. In the seventeen cities with high immigration in 1990, the crime rate was 8.7 per 1000 residents. By contrast, cities with the fewest immigrants had a crime rate that was 17% higher, or 10.5 per 1,000 persons. Of the high immigration cities, only Miami had a crime rate of at least 12 per 1000, while six of the seventeen lowest immigration cities (Jackson, Birmingham, Mobile, St. Louis, Kansas City and Baton Rouge) had crime rates that high. In fact, as a general proposition, low crime cities had twice as large an immigrant presence as high crime cities in both 1980 and 1990.

There is no more damning charge hurled by the anti-immigration forces these days against those who seek to open the “Golden Door” a bit wider than the accusation that immigrants mean higher taxes. In his report for the Hoover Institution, Stephen Moore found this to be a charge without substance. When taxes are measured as a share of personal income, the high immigration cities in 1990 had a tax burden (3.9%) that was 10% lower than the 4.3 % tax burden in low immigration cities. The distinction would be even greater if New York City were eliminated from the mix since New York has a tax load at 12.7% that was twice the national average.  Not one of the 15 cities with large immigration gains in the 1980s had a tax burden higher than the average for the 85 largest cities as a whole; yet four of the five cities with the largest losses in immigration (Detroit, Rochester, Pittsburgh and Cleveland) had tax burdens above the 85-city average of 3.7%.  The popular myth that immigrants cause taxpayers to shell out more of their hard-earned income in tax spending is contradicted by the fact that those cities with the most immigrants during the decade of the 1980s had low tax rates in 1990. The lowest tax cities had a median foreign-born population of 9.8% in 1980 compared to a 5.0 % level for the highest tax cities.  Of the ten cities that improved their economies the most in the 1980s only one, Colorado Springs, lost immigrants. Yet five of the slowest-growing cities (Milwaukee, St. Louis, Shreveport, Cleveland and Detroit) lost immigrants.

All of these statistics do not prove that immigration has caused urban prosperity; but they do demonstrate that immigration is not a prime reason for urban decay. Perhaps, immigrants are attracted by high growth areas, but it may be just as accurate to suppose that immigration is a leading cause of such vitality in the first place. Whatever the reason, the link between the good life in America’s cities and expanded immigration is a strong connection that deserves to be nurtured and expanded not to help those who come but to enrich the places where they are arriving. Nearly two hundred years ago, James Madison aptly observed, “ That part of America that has encouraged (foreigners) has advanced most rapidly in population, agriculture and in the arts.” What was true then is still true today.  Of all the many words that Lamar Smith has spoken about immigration, urban America would like to add two more, ”Thank You.”