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States Recognizing the Value of New Americans

Legal immigrants are some of the nation’s biggest job creators, which is why more cities are viewing them as a key to economic revival.

In their 2009 book Immigrant, Inc., Richard Herman and Robert Smith include this quote from a 1953 report by the President’s Commission on Immigration and Naturalization: “The richest regions are those with the highest proportion of recent immigrants. ... Their industry, their skills and their enterprise were major factors in the economic development that has made these regions prosperous.”

If anything, that proposition is even truer now. The immigration reforms of 1965 significantly increased the possibilities for non-Europeans to enter the United States. The result has been a surge of talented, well educated immigrants from places like China and India. By the 2000 Census, immigrants accounted for nearly half of all of this country’s scientists and engineers with doctoral degrees.

Contrary to the idea that immigrants take jobs that would otherwise go to native-born Americans, legal immigrants are job creators. They constituted nearly all of the growth in so-called “main street” businesses in 31 of the 50 largest U.S. metro areas from 2000 to 2013, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, an independent research organization in New York. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s website notes that in his state immigrants created high-tech businesses at a rate six times that of the rest of the state’s population. It’s not hard to see why Snyder created the Michigan Office for New Americans last year.

Michigan is just one example of a growing number of state and local governments forging a new economic development strategy that the authors of Immigrant, Inc. labeled as “immigrant driven revival.” In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has brought immigrants into City Hall to take the oath of citizenship. In his view, these new citizens are a vital part of his plans to replenish declining neighborhoods. In Boston, the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians focuses on welcoming immigrants, especially international students, as part of its strategy for keeping and building the region’s strong position in the high-tech economy.

These state and local leaders see that while immigration reform is clearly needed at the federal level, there is no point in waiting for it to happen. They’ve got immediate problems, and immigrants are part of the solution. Indeed, one of the places where innovation is happening is in finding ways to game the system to get around the feds.

Meanwhile, groups like Welcoming America are providing a platform for state and local governments to share information and best practices, and in November President Obama established a task force charged with identifying and disseminating best practices at the local level for integrating immigrants into American communities.

Steve Tobocman of the nonprofit Global Detroit calls increased immigration “the single great urban revitalization strategy in modern day America.” And, he notes, “it’s one that doesn’t cost tax dollars.” Little wonder that in immigration, as in so many areas of public policy, real change is being forced beyond the halls of Congress.  

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at
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