Today’s challenge: Name a Midwestern city where business and civic leaders are partnered in a project to attract immigrants and harness their drive to build the economy.
Hint: That city is in a state with a Legislature that is worried about Sharia Law, wants to require that drivers license tests be taken in English and to stop liberalization of the nation’s immigration policy.
The answer, of course, is St. Louis.
In whatever universe the Missouri Legislature exists, its members do not want to help St. Louis become the economic engine for the region — and the rest of Missouri — that it could be.
“We cannot reach our goals in a state that is viewed as negative toward immigration,” Bob Fox, local businessman and founder of the Casa de Salud health care center, said at a conference last year on the economics of immigration. “Even neutrality is not good enough.”
Any legislator who says that he or she favors job creators and wants to help the businesses that make that happen and then opposes helping immigrants make Missouri their home must understand that he or she can’t do both.
Study after study has shown that immigrants help bolster the economies in the regions where they live, work and go to school. Let states like Arizona and Alabama pass laws to keep immigrants out. Missouri needs to find a way to bring people in.
One local study by Jack Strauss, an economics professor at St. Louis University, gives us a lot of fodder for this viewpoint.
Mr. Strauss says the region’s lack of immigrants explains a “considerable amount of the reason why St. Louis has slow job and income growth.”
The St. Louis region was the 10th-largest metro area in the country in 1980, when it ranked 26th in the number of foreign-born residents. Now the metro-area population is 19th in the country and 43rd in immigrants.
Along with the slumping population, St. Louis also lags in economic growth.
As Tim Logan reported in Wednesday’s Post-Dispatch, new figures from the Commerce Department put the St. Louis area’s $133 billion economy near the bottom in economic growth in the country.
The area’s economy grew 1.6 percent last year, lower than the national average of 2.5 percent. At the top was San Francisco, a city rich in many of nature’s gifts, but also a gateway community historically awash in immigrants.
That California city saw its economy grow 7.4 percent last year. Its immigrant population is 35 percent. St. Louis’ foreign-born population is slightly less than 5 percent. Of the area’s 2.8 million residents, 126,000 are foreign born.
As Howard Wall, a former Federal Reserve economist who now teaches at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, told Mr. Logan: “We can’t control that we don’t have oil or a coast, but we can control these other things, at least to a degree.”
Some of these other things include efforts to increase educational attainment, to make the region more welcoming to immigrants and an easier place to launch startups, to combine the city and St. Louis County’s economic development efforts and forge deeper foreign trade ties.
No one is advocating that the St. Louis region go to war with the rest of Missouri, but business leaders here should use their clout to get state lawmakers to call off the dogs. Immigrant-bashing may play well in rural Missouri, but it’s hurting the state’s economy.
If Missouri overall could become a place that welcomes people born in other countries, that makes it easier for foreign-born people to work, drive and vote, St. Louis and the rest of the state would prosper.
The St. Louis Mosaic Project is a good start. It’s where business and civic leaders are working to find ways to attract and retain immigrants. Betsy Cohen, director of the project, says that a foreign-born person here is 60 percent more likely to start a business than a native-born resident.
Sixty percent — those are good odds.
Another recent study by a Duke University economist, based on Census data, shows that immigrant populations have helped communities increase home values and retain manufacturing jobs over the past three decades.
Immigrants boost demand for housing, which helps stabilize prices. Immigrants create a large pool of potential workers with a greater variety of skills.
In St. Louis, leaders are talking about their hospitality for the foreign-born, helping immigrants attain more education and devising ways to make it easier for them to start businesses, get jobs, buy houses and learn the area’s transportation system.
Jefferson City should join the effort.