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After looking at some new census numbers last year, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of St. Louis added two new employees, almost doubling its staff to five people. One of those new workers is solely devoted to growing membership.

“We learned there’s 3,000 Hispanic-owned businesses, and we don’t even have 10 percent of that (as members),” said Hispanic Chamber President and CEO Karlos Ramirez, who has headed the organization for six years. “When I started, it was me and a secretary.”

Strengthening business and social networks among ethnic minorities is what demographers and immigration experts say ultimately attracts new immigrants. When people put down roots and feel part of a community, family members and others with a similar ethnic makeup tend to follow.

The entry points of the country — cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Miami — are still taking in the bulk of new immigrants, but their offspring are increasingly looking beyond those cities.

“That’s been spreading out over time, and it depends on social networks and family networks and recruitment policies on the part of businesses and local communities,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

For the last several years, St. Louis business and political leaders have looked to immigration as a salve for the region’s stagnant population and economic growth. After a 2012 report citing the region’s low attraction to immigrants compared to other cities, they launched the Mosaic Project to help integrate immigrants and ethnic minorities into the region’s economy. They’ve touted the work of the International Institute of St. Louis, which resettles refugees and offers English classes and other services to new residents.

But with what many view as anti-immigrant rhetoric coming out of President Donald Trump’s administration — through cuts in the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. and talk of curbing both the number of immigrants and those admitted through a visa program for high-skilled workers — the region’s task just got harder.

“Cities like St. Louis then are competing for a smaller pool of newcomers,” said Anna Crosslin, International Institute president and CEO. “Immigrants are not the answer to a community’s economic woes, but they are a very important part of a plan to turn around communities.”

Slow-growth blues

Attracting more immigrants is a strategy many Rust Belt cities have emphasized to try and prop up population and economic growth that lags the coasts and Sun Belt metro areas.

“In order to grow, to get the kind of (gross domestic product) growth that we need as a country and as a region, we need more people,” St. Louis Regional Chamber President Joe Reagan said after a recent conference in St. Louis with New American Economy, a coalition of mayors and business leaders that touts the economic benefits of immigrants. “We need everybody. We cannot afford to close the door and turn our back on any individual.”

If the last U.S. Census estimates are any indication, immigration keeps the St. Louis metro from dipping into population losses most years. Yet the numbers still lag well behind most metro areas.

The St. Louis region was estimated to have lost about 1,500 people in 2016, according to census figures released last month. Since 2010, the area grew only about 0.6 percent, well below the national average and above only six other big cities including Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. And at 1.3 percent, the St. Louis region’s 2015 GDP growth was only about half of that in other U.S. metro areas.

There’s little to suggest the population growth here will change from current trends, said Charles Gascon, an economist at the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. It’s not all bad, he points out. True, population growth means economic growth and perhaps political power. But it can also mean congestion, pollution, spikes in the cost of living and greater inequality.

“It’s not necessarily the case that by pushing people in, you solve those problems,” Gascon said. “In some cases you can make them worse.”

Natives who leave the area are the biggest weight on the region’s lackluster population growth, a trend occurring across the Midwest as people move south and west.

“That would be way in the net negative if it weren’t for the steady stream of people coming from other countries,” said John Posey, director of research at the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the region’s planning arm.

Frey, the Brookings demographer, points out that New York consistently records among the highest percent of natives leaving, but immigrants offset that population loss and keep the nation’s largest city growing.

St. Louis has some work to do if it wants immigrants to help it grow at more than a tepid pace over the coming decades. The number of net new immigrants to the region has ticked up to above 4,100 for the last three years in a row, pushing the average number of immigrants to about 3,600 since 2010. That’s an increase from the average of 3,100 in the last decade.

But the region still ranks far below almost all big metros in the percent of immigrants that make up the region’s 2.8 million people. With about 125,000 foreign-born residents, only 4.5 percent of area residents are immigrants, ranking St. Louis 249th in the country, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

“Part of the challenge is that the base off of which we are building is small,” the International Institute’s Crosslin said.

Visas are limited, and national immigration policies form the bounds of how many immigrants local leaders can attract, Gascon said. But local initiatives like St. Louis is emphasizing can eventually bear fruit. “It takes time and effort, but it is something, with targeted efforts, you can see how that works,” he said.

Give me your students

The uptick in immigrants here in recent years appears to be correlated with an increase in international students. About 44 percent of the foreign-born in St. Louis have college degrees, higher than both the 31 percent of native St. Louisans and 30 percent of immigrants across the country with college degrees, said Migration Policy Institute President Michael Fix.

“The immigrants flowing into many of these Rust Belt cities like St. Louis have strong human capital profiles,” he said. “The factories have left, but the great universities remain.”

Younger immigrants may be attending universities in the region, but getting them to stay and start or join businesses is another matter.

“It’s not impossible, but there’s only so many routes you can take within the system to do that,” Gascon said.

Retaining more international students studying science and technology has been the focus of several reports cited by the Mosaic Project, which is housed in the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. Area employers cite a shortage of high-skilled workers as the main obstacle to business expansion, according to a report from the Office of International Studies and Programs at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The rhetoric many see as anti-immigrant embroiling national politics may already be having an effect, Crosslin worries. Fix said he recently heard a corporate leader say university applications are taking a hit.

“The flow of high-skilled immigrants is slowing a little bit,” Fix said. “People are reluctant to come, particularly from India and China.”

‘It can happen again’

While President Trump’s executive order barring travel from certain countries is tied up in the courts, his reduction in the number of refugees the country can resettle to 50,000 is already having an impact. It cut in half the number allowed the prior year, when St. Louis resettled about 1,100 refugees, many of them Syrians.

The country is already about to hit the new cap, Crosslin said, so St. Louis will likely only get about 550 refugees this year.

The number of refugees the region gets is small but significant. St. Louis often points to the influx of Bosnian refugees that helped repopulate some southside neighborhoods.

Only about 8,000 or 9,000 of those were settled here as refugees, but their relatives and fellow expats decided to come here from other U.S. cities due to the network some built here. Now, there’s an estimated 50,000 Bosnians in the region, many of them children of the original refugees.

“It can happen again,” Crosslin said.

St. Louis is a big city because of immigrants, she said, pointing to the German, Irish and Italian immigrants who made their way to the middle of the country by way of the Mississippi River during the early to mid-19th century.

That slowed to a trickle after Chicago became the great rail hub in the center of the country. And migration patterns among lower-skilled Latin American immigrants largely bypassed St. Louis during those immigration waves in the 1980s and ’90s. Chicago, again, has gained the network that attracts those Latin American immigrants who leave the South and West for the Midwest.

But Ramirez, at the local Hispanic Chamber, is working to build St. Louis’ Hispanic business network. St. Louis’ Hispanic community is small and dispersed compared to other big cities, but Mexicans still made up the largest single group of foreign-born residents here: almost 15,400, according to St. Louis University professor J.S. Onésimo Sandoval’s analysis of census figures.

Most of the estimated 90,000 Hispanic residents of the St. Louis region are now the descendants of immigrants. And the Hispanic Chamber projects that population to almost double over the next 15 years.

It’s already doubled membership in the last five years, and Ramirez said big local corporate employers have become members, hoping to support area workforce growth or recruit to meet diversity initiatives. A year ago, Ramirez himself became the chairman of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, the region’s primary business attraction and growth agency.

He thinks St. Louis and Missouri appear to be trying to be more welcoming to Hispanics, which he said is the best thing it can do if it wants to add immigrants and diversity.

“Given the Hispanic Chamber’s growth, the support for (immigrant health care provider) Casa de Salud … and less legislation in Jefferson City that is anti-immigrant, all of that would indicate to me that we’re definitely on an upward trend,” Ramirez said. “But all of that could easily change.”

Walker Moskop of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.