When Nar Pradhan moved to Cleveland from Nepal in 2008, he had no family connections or other ties to the city. The then 27-year old Bhutanese refugee eventually found work as a dishwasher at a local Indian restaurant before his mother and eight siblings all came over to join him.

In the six short years since, his family established deep roots in the local business community. The Pradhan family bought the Indian restaurant, which now also serves Himalayan cuisine. They later opened up a small grocery store on the city’s west side offering a variety of spices, fresh produce and beverages from around the globe.

“We want to spend our lives here in Cleveland now,” Pradhan said. “This country is the land of opportunity.”

The Pradhans’ success story is just the kind of boost Cleveland and other cities desperately need. Some urban areas, particularly in the Rust Belt, continue to record population declines as factories close and residents pack their bags. These same areas, though, are welcoming large numbers of immigrants, a facet that’s emerged as a key component of policymakers’ strategies to stabilize regions that are struggling both economically and demographically.

Between 2010 and 2013, 73 metro areas registered population losses. If not for international migration, 106 would have recorded declines, according to a Governing review of recent Census estimates.

The Cleveland-Elyria metro area countered a net domestic migration loss of 32,000 residents with an international migration gain of 11,600 over the three-year period.

With a steady stream of new residents from 117 different ethnic groups, immigrant communities have flourished throughout the region. Art galleries and restaurants line the streets of Asiatown, just east of downtown. Tourists and locals alike frequent the historic Little Italy neighborhood. Parma, a nearby suburb, is home to the state’s largest Ukrainian population.

In pitching themselves to immigrants, Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities enjoy a few notable advantages. For one, housing costs are low, particularly in areas with high vacancy rates. Joy Roller, president of Global Cleveland, also said immigrants feel part of their communities in a way they can’t in other larger cities. “Cleveland is changing very rapidly now, and they can be a part of it,” she said. 

Other Rust Belt cities are experiencing their own steady influx of immigrants. From 2010 to 2013, the Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, Mich., metro area saw its total population dip slightly – by about 1,300 residents – yet it still added 32,500 residents from abroad. The Buffalo metro area lost 1,400 total residents while net international migration climbed 8,000. The total population of the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre-Hazleton, Pa., metro area similarly dropped by 1,600, but still added 3,000 residents via international in-migration.

In each case, slight population declines would have been more severe absent international migration, which includes foreign immigrants, as well as natives moving back home and members of the military. Accordingly, rolling out the red carpet has emerged as a key strategy for propping up a growing number of regional economies.

Global Cleveland, along with state and local leaders, formally launched a talent attraction campaign connecting businesses, higher education institutions and multicultural organizations to potential newcomers in May. The group set a target of luring 60,000 people by 2020. Earlier this year, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley announced an initiative attracting foreigners to boost redevelopment. Officials previously introduced similar efforts in Dayton, Baltimore and elsewhere.

Research suggests immigrants are more entrepreneurial than other Americans, one reason why the group is so coveted.

Officials frequently express frustration, though, over federal immigration regulations they consider overly restrictive. Some seek alternatives, such as special immigrant visa programs. In April, Michigan announced federal approval of a program allowing wealthier immigrants to secure permanent residency by investing in state businesses.

While the renewed emphasis on immigration has helped better market these regions, far greater numbers still flock to the nation’s traditional immigrant hubs. The New York City metro area, for example, welcomed a net total of 400,000 residents from abroad since 2010.

For Rust Belt cities, the biggest challenge is often just getting on the map of where foreigners are looking to move. The typical resident of a village in China hasn’t heard of Cleveland, so the region needs to build connections on a global scale to become more of a port city, said Richey Piiparinen of the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University.

Of course, Rust Belt cities must also offer ample job opportunities, which is a significant hurdle as industries are still reeling from the aftermath of the recession. Certain cultural attitudes held by segments of the population don’t help, either. “We really have to fight this cultural insularity so that we don’t keep instituting nativist policies,” Piiparinen said.

Many of the same reasons why declining cities struggle to hold onto existing residents must be addressed if they’re to attract more immigrants. Jeanne Batalova a senior policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, said they’ll need to emphasize livability and change how they’re perceived.

It’s too early, Batalova said, to gauge the effectiveness of some of the newer initiatives aimed at welcoming immigrants. The fact that immigrants are continuing to migrate to these areas, though, is a positive sign.

“As attracting immigrants becomes more of an acceptable policy tool, more local governments are willing to turn to it,” she said.

Metro Area Migration Data

Select a metro area below to display changes in population between 2010 and 2013. Population and migration data for all counties within a given metro area are shown.

Learn About Tableau Notes on the data: - Migration data shown are net totals. - International migration considers immigrants moving to the U.S., natives returning to the country and movement of members of the military. - Natural change (not shown) is included in the totals. - Rates listed are per 1,000 residents.