Philadelphia's Open-Door Immigrant Policy

Immigrant populations remain a key source of economic development for inner cities.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration has taken an unabashed pro-immigrant stance, welcoming all with no questions asked. It may sound a bit extreme, but the move by the City of Brotherly Love reflects an open-arms approach to immigrants in urban areas -- and there’s a reason for this open-door policy. Immigrants have been good for cities throughout history, and that symbiotic relationship continues today.

In Philadelphia, the immigrant story has become a prominent feature of life: Foreign-born residents make up 9 percent of the population in the metro region, which has the fastest-growing immigrant base among its peers, according to a 2008 Brookings Institution report.

Despite the fact that four in 10 immigrants now move directly to the suburbs when they arrive in America, they remain a key source of economic development for inner cities. In 2005, Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter wrote a report showing that 5.5 million immigrants had been a catalyst for development and investment in inner cities, spurring job growth in 10 inner cities that outpaced job growth in their broader metropolitan areas. Other studies have come to the same conclusion: Cities with thriving immigrant populations tend to prosper the most.

In Dearborn, Mich., Arab immigrants have become a lifeboat for the local economy. Overall, the Arab-American community is now 200,000 strong in southeastern Michigan and produces $7.7 billion annually in salaries and earnings, according to a 2007 Wayne State University study. As the influx of Arab-Americans expands and their impact on the region’s economy continues to grow, downtrodden Detroit is looking to entice them into its inner core, the one area where Arabs haven’t set down roots.

One way Detroit hopes to make that happen is by setting up an economic development center that specializes in recruiting immigrant investors. Known in government circles as an EB-5 investment visa regional center, it allows immigrants who are willing to invest at least $500,000 in cities with high unemployment, permanent resident status in return. Detroit will join 80 other cities in setting up such a program.

In November, the National League of Cities released a report on how 20 cities have integrated immigrants into city life. Recognizing the policy vacuum at the national level, the report, Municipal Innovations in Immigrant Integration, provides examples of ways municipalities have figured out how to move immigrants into the mainstream. Some examples come from the nation’s largest cities, but others -- such as Littleton, Colo. -- have used a simple but effective grass-roots approach that involves volunteers who help steer immigrants onto a path of self-reliance and citizenship.

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, local leaders are doing what they can to make the city an immigrant hub. Some of their ideas have been controversial, such as pushing city services and jobs into immigrant neighborhoods. But as Israel Colon, the city’s director of multicultural affairs, explained to Governing in a July 2010 interview, immigrants aren’t going away. So rather than try to drive them out, as some cities have, Nutter’s administration wants to rely on them, no matter their resident status, to help the city grow and prosper.

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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