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Did Latino Immigrants Save the American City?

Starting in the 1990s, many cities have come back, growing in population while reducing sky-high rates of crime. A. K. Sandoval-Strausz talks about the overlooked impact of Latino immigrants on their rebirth.

Barrio Logan, in San Diego, is known for its cultural significance as a Chicano neighborhood.
The resurgence of many American cities over the last 30 years came as a surprise. After a brutal mid-century, defined by deindustrialization and white flight, cities from Oakland to Boston saw their fortunes revive. Population rebounded, crime fell, business activity hummed.

There are a variety of explanations for this phenomenon. Lifestyle preferences among a chunk of younger Americans shifted, as they embraced the smaller homes and car-light lifestyle of urban living. Some retirees scrapped their big suburban houses for smaller condos or rentals in the city, where they could more easily walk to get groceries and see friends. A handful of urban centers, like New York and San Francisco, were able to shift the preponderance of white-collar jobs to their region’s central city.

All of those factors contributed. But the single biggest reason why some American cities rebounded beginning in the 1990s was because of immigration. In areas like Northeast Philadelphia and East Boston, as domestic white Americans continued to leave the city, foreign-born arrivals moved in and kept the streets vibrant.

Penn State University professor A. K. Sandoval-Strausz dives into one aspect of the urban immigrant experience in his 2019 book Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City. He zeroes in on two different Hispanic neighborhoods, covering the Sun Belt and the Rust Belt: Chicago’s Little Village and Dallas’ Oak Cliff. But in addition to telling these specific stories, Sandoval-Strausz expands his scope to take in the larger canvass of how immigrant groups affect business corridors, crime rates and electoral politics.

Governing talked with Sandoval-Strausz about the differences and similarities between recent immigrants and their 19th-century counterparts, the importance of walkability to barrio life and why America needs even more immigrants to thrive.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Governing: The subtitle of your book is “How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City.” When did immigration from Latin America begin to reshape urban America?

A. K. Sandoval-Strausz: The cities of the United States began a long decline after about 1950. That was the peak population for pretty much all industrial cities. Then as a result of government policy, and individual and institutional racism, a lot of mostly white people began to leave American cities. This process went hand-in-hand with the loss of jobs, loss of tax revenues and the rise of crime. By the 1970s and 1980s, it looked like the big American city had simply come and gone.

That is not what happened. American cities began to turn around in the 1990s. Crime rates dropped dramatically. Populations in many places grew. Today, big problems in many cities involve not enough affordable housing for everyone because so many people want to live there.

But a lot of the explanations for why this happened focused on, frankly, people with a lot of money who are mostly Anglo. I'm referring to the rise of the Richard Florida school of thought, which emphasizes mostly white professionals. This did not seem to be accurate from my research. In terms of absolute numbers, in many of these cities there were never as many white people as there had been in 1950. People focus on this small subcategory of mostly white people moving in, but in terms of the overall population of these cities, who began to repopulate them first, the answer was immigrants, of whom the largest number were those from Latin America. They arrive sooner, they begin to repopulate schools and churches, they save housing markets. They did things, without which the great urban recovery could not have happened. We're talking about home construction, building maintenance, child care, food service and groundskeeping. These are all very Latino- and Latina-heavy industries without which that creative class could not have been able to return at all.

Governing: Your book is focused on barrios, but what role did Asian immigrants play in this story? What are the geopolitical and economic differences between the forces compelling the two groups to the U.S.? 

Sandoval-Strausz: One of the most important moments is the Immigration Act of 1965, and it works differently for different groups of immigrants. For people in Asia, it's a fantastic law because it allows them — in many cases for the first time — to emigrate in substantial numbers and to naturalize. For most of the world, the 1965 Act was just terrific.

It worked a little bit differently for people from Latin America. The outrageously prejudiced ethnic and racial quotas of the 1924 National Origins Act restricted most of the world from coming to the United States at all. But it did not have any numerical restrictions on Latin America. Those numerical restrictions were actually introduced in 1965. The lengthy coming and going of workers from Mexico and other parts of Latin America were rendered illegal by imposing these quotas. Segregationist senators panicked about brown and especially Black people becoming part of the United States and put limitations on hemispheric migration.

In terms of the main causes of migration, remember that the United States is in desperate need of labor for this entire period, with American employers recruiting people from around the world. In addition to that, there are lots of American interventions overseas. The Korean War, the Vietnam War and various proxy battles. These often create large numbers of refugees, some of whom find their way here. The large-scale migration from much of the world starts in the late 1960s. But it's actually the 1990s that is the single biggest decade of migration in the entire history of the United States.

I wrote this book about Latinos because I can speak Spanish, but there are Chinatowns, Koreatowns, little Saigons that serve the same purposes in urban economies. I focus on the single biggest group of immigrants, the vast majority of whom share a single language, which is not true for Asian immigrants. As a result, they can create big barrios, part Mexican, part Puerto Rican, part Cuban, part Colombian: but they all share linguistic commonalities which makes it much easier for businesses to grow.

Governing: How did American cities fare that did not manage to attract substantial numbers of Latino and Asian residents?

Sandoval-Strausz: The overall story of urban fortunes over the past few decades is a very happy one. About 18 of the 25 biggest cities have gained population. In the past decade, almost every single city gained population. But there are exceptions. One of the reasons that Detroit lost 25 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010 is because there was such a low rate of immigration. Same is true of Cleveland and Baltimore. If you look at the cities that have not grown, they're the ones that have not attracted substantial numbers of Latino and Asian residents.
Juniata Park in Philadelphia is home to immigrants from Vietnam, Puerto Rico, Cambodia, Mexico, Palestine, Dominican Republic. According to Census data, 58 percent of neighborhood residents identify as Hispanic and Latino.
Governing: In the mid-century, in both Chicago and Dallas, Mexican residents of American cities were often coded as “white” by the census, banks and political organizations. That isn’t to say they weren’t discriminated against, but can you explain why the discrimination they suffered was not as fierce as what Black Americans faced?

Sandoval-Strausz: Latinos were often seen as in between and indeterminate. If you look at the beginning of Lilia Fernandez's terrific book Brown in the Windy City, she talks a lot about how Puerto Ricans and Mexicans were often called the N-word by white people, because they didn't know quite where they fit in. That was their, very racist, best guess. While that did happen in some cases, there were also many other areas in which white people saw Latinos as acceptable neighbors, assimilable neighbors.

In West Chicago, it was partly because so many of them were Catholic and they shared the same churches, the same parishes. It's also because they simply weren't Black. There was a sliding scale of white racism. And Latinos, of course, have a very broad range of skin tones. There are many cases in which Latinos just were thought of as like, well, I guess they're OK.

One of the clearest ways to identify this is that, remember, throughout the late 1940s, the 1950s and the 1960s, one of the most common occurrences in cities was white riots. A Black dentist, his wife and kids would try to move into a house in a predominantly white neighborhood and hundreds of people would show up and throw fireworks at them, yell racial epithets and threaten them. These kinds of anti-Black race riots were very common. But those mostly didn't happen to Latinas and Latinos.

Governing: Is it fair to compare the experiences of Asian and Latino immigrants to the experiences of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries? 

Sandoval-Strausz: The collective and individual experiences of recent Latino and Asian immigrants are actually quite similar to those of the different waves of immigrants that came before them. They do manage to create ethnic economies and ethnic identities in their neighborhoods, often in exactly the same ones. Another similarity is that their labor is absolutely essential to the creation of a new order of the economy, whether it be the industrial economy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, or the real estate and service economy of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries. These things could simply not have happened without the labor of these immigrant groups.

Then the lies that were told about them by many native-born Americans are almost identical. Go back and look at what Benjamin Franklin said about the Germans. They're lazy, they're taking our jobs, they're inherently different, they're unassimilable, they're racially different. So many of the things said about the Irish, Italians, Jews, as are being said about Latinos now.

One way that their experiences are fairly different is that a lot of the previous groups of immigrants arrived at a time when entry-level, low-wage work was incredibly plentiful and becoming better paid. There are certainly sectors in which a lot of Latino and Asian immigrants work — homebuilding child care, groundskeeping, building, maintenance and the like — but these are often industries where wages are not going up all that terribly much. So they're facing a much harder go in terms of establishing themselves and getting beyond the working class economically. It was much easier to advance as "old immigrants."

Governing: You highlight research in Chicago that found immigration is a salve for crime. Immigrant-heavy neighborhoods are much safer and less crime prone, and first-generation immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than their native-born counterparts. What do you find to be the most convincing explanation for this?

Sandoval-Strausz: We are still in the process of figuring out the answer to this. But criminologists have unmistakably documented that whether as a matter of neighborhood, whether as a matter of individual, whether as a matter of population trends, more immigrants means less crime. This involves people from pretty much almost everywhere in the world. As far as explaining the why, well, American-born people are unusually violent. Our homicide rates tend to be about five times what they are in other similarly economically situated countries.

The second thing to remember is that immigrants are not a random sample of people from their home countries. To emigrate requires a fair amount of knowledge, a fair amount of courage and a fair amount of resources. The most desperately poor largely don't emigrate. The people who are coming from those countries are unusually intrepid and unusually courageous. And a lot of sociologists believe that this probably disposes them to being less criminal.

My book focuses on the actual urban environment created by a lot of these migrants. Their very heavy use of commercial areas and tendency to walk from place to place as opposed to driving. The way that they use the front of their properties as social gathering places where kids can play. I look upon that as a latter-day variant of what Jane Jacobs famously called "eyes on the street." What kept her Greenwich Village safe is not the profusion of police officers, but the everyday surveillance and monitoring done by people hanging out on stoops, leaning out the windows, sweeping the sidewalks in front of the stores, and just keeping an eye on things.

I'm going to be working with a couple of sociologists at the University of Maryland to see if we can find a way to quantify and demonstrate that statistically. That there is something about particular kinds of environments that lead to particular social outcomes. For example, Eric Klinenberg wrote a fantastic book [about Chicago’s killer 1995 heatwave] where he notices that the death rate of heatstroke is far lower among Latinos than among Black or white people. He thinks it’s because of the social environment. More people go outside, more people are in stores. And that allows them to survive. I think the same kind of feature works broadly to reduce crime.
Cleveland's Clark-Fulton neighborhood, Northeast Ohio's biggest Hispanic community.
(Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer)
Governing: Is the pedestrian and communal element of these neighborhoods waning as the children of immigrants acclimate to a car-dominated American culture and move to the suburbs?

Sandoval-Strausz: Yes, I think they almost certainly are. A lot of these immigrants are coming from countries where there are far fewer cars per person. It depends upon growing up with the expectation that you'll walk from place to place as opposed to driving. The number of Latinos that's increasing in the United States is now mostly driven by births. People who live in our car culture are much more likely to adopt that culture.

If we have another wave of arrivals of Latinos, with our current desperate labor shortage, then maybe we'll see a replenishment of that walking culture. But over the past decade or so or more, there have been more Latino immigrants going directly to the suburbs than to the cities. I think you are unfortunately likely to see that effect of greater propensity to walk fading.

As we were just talking about, foreign-born people are much less likely to commit crimes than American-born people. The first generation of American born Latinos are still substantially less likely to commit crimes, but not quite as much as their folks. Their grandkids are still a little bit more law-abiding than the average American, but not by much. In areas like nutrition too, pretty much everywhere you look there is a gradual diminution of the immigrant-specific effect.

One of the things we noticed in Latino studies is a thing called the Latino health paradox. Despite the fact that Latinos are on average poorer than non-Hispanic whites, they, on average, live longer. That has a lot to do not just with what culture you came from, but the kind of environment you grew up in. People living in barrios where they walk around a lot more tend to have slightly better health outcomes than the suburbanized members of the same ethnic group.

Governing: Let's wrap up by talking about politics. There is the famous “emerging Democratic majority” thesis, which posited that the old Democratic base of unionized white workers, Black Americans and a segment of the professional class could combine with newer Latino and Asian voters to return stable majorities. That seemed true in the two Obama elections, but has rather spectacularly fallen apart since. 

Sandoval-Strausz: There are lots of folks who expected that the arrival, the naturalization and the general growth of the Latino population would be a big contributor to an enduring Democratic majority. Then in the election of 2016 the Democrats margins were smaller and, I think this is crucial, there was not any overall increase in turnout. So those expectations were not borne out at the ballot box. That has to be seen as a really major turning point in U.S. Latino history.

If you speak to Geraldo Cadava, professor at Northwestern University, when he talks to groups of Latino voters and the people doing the polling, [they thought] Trump did better in 2020 largely on the job issue. Those voters were really, really focused on employment. That seemed to supersede the cultural concerns about how racist Donald Trump was. During the pandemic, they had the sense that Trump was trying to open things up and that Democratic governors were foregrounding the goal of not having people die of a deadly airborne pathogen. That made Trump more friendly to them in terms of jobs. That's the closest to the grass roots I can get you.

But a lot of the time the margins in the neighborhoods I look at have gone from local Hispanics voting 80 percent Democratic down to 70 percent or 65 percent. It is both surprising, and little bit over reported (partially because it is surprising). But I think we want to remember that the immigrant-heavy Latino neighborhoods are still fairly overwhelmingly Democratic. We're nowhere near a point where the Republicans are going to start winning 60 percent or 65 percent of Latinos.

Governing: Speaking of Trump, his administration really cracked down on immigration. COVID-19 restricted it even more. What will happen to American cities if it doesn’t pick back up again? 

Sandoval-Strausz: Immigration has definitely fallen off. That is certainly a problem for cities. It's an even bigger problem for all of America. One of the great ironies of the moment is that at a time when the U.S. birth rate continues to be low, and COVID-19 drove it down even further, we are at an even greater risk than before of demographic crisis. This is the point where you have a huge anti-immigrant political movement? It's like a person who is starving, and you try to put a nice plate of food in front of them and they push it away. Ironically, because anti-immigrant sentiment is often a little bit more pronounced among older people, it's just sad that they can't see that the people that they need to keep Social Security going, the people that they need to keep hospitals staffed are predominantly Latino and Asian.

But unfortunately, just the sheer racism, the willingness to entertain racial paranoia of great replacement theory, seems to have overwhelmed the actual real demographic and economic need. It’s the great tragedy of the era because, quite simply, there will not be enough Americans to pay into all of our various social programs, to be in our schools, to supply recruits for our military. There just won't be enough people unless this reverses itself.

The Biden administration has taken a much more open attitude, at least to the possibility of refugee and migrant admissions. But it's going to be a few years before we can really see how much effect this has. But we are no less dependent on immigration than we were five or 10 years ago and there is zero prospect anytime in the future that we will become less dependent on this. It's just a demographic reality. I really hope our culture can catch up with our necessities, because otherwise we're just going to be starving ourselves to death.
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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