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2019 Festival of Nations

Festival goers crowd the walkway during the International Institute's 2019 Festival of Nations at Tower Grove Park in St. Louis Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. Organizers said this was the 19th annual festival of multicultural sights and sounds of the St. Louis region. Photo by Sid Hastings

ST. LOUIS — As more foreign-born people move into St. Louis, the metro area’s population continues to diversify — even as overall population remains stagnant.

The St. Louis area is third among the nation’s top 20 metros for growth of its foreign-born population, according to new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Ness Sandoval, associate professor of sociology at St. Louis University, is scheduled to present those findings at a St. Louis Mosaic Project meeting on Thursday morning.

“It has to do with St. Louis’ affordability,” Sandoval told the Post-Dispatch. “There are great opportunities to live the American dream in St. Louis.”

Between 2017 and 2018, the area added 5,640 foreign-born people — an increase of 4.1%. The only places in the country that added more were Riverside, California, 4.8%, and Seattle, 4.6%. “Foreign-born” populations can include immigrants, refugees and temporary migrants, such as foreign students.

Much of the migration comes from immigrants who first lived in more expensive cities like Miami and Los Angeles. But Sandoval won’t be able to narrow his research down to which specific nationalities are moving into the area until January, when more detailed census data is released.

While St. Louis has historically relied on refugees for most of its foreign-born population, “we are getting more than just refugees,” Sandoval said. “We are getting highly educated immigrants with higher human capital, who are more likely to start a business.”

SLU presents the research to the Mosaic Project as a part of a partnership, Sandoval said, but the project does not financially sponsor the research.

St. Louis Mosaic Project is a regional initiative within the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and the World Trade Center St. Louis. After a 2012 report was released showing the area’s slow immigrant population growth, the project was formed to bring more immigrants to St. Louis and increase economic vitality in the region.

The Mosaic Project’s goal is to continue encouraging that trend. Sandoval said promoting the area as a region can help.

“I think Houston’s a good place, Los Angeles is a good place, for people (living there) to look at St. Louis as an opportunity to start a business, an opportunity to raise a family,” Sandoval said.

The St. Louis metro area’s population growth began to stagnate in 2016. For the past few years, the number has hovered around 2.8 million people spread over the bi-state area.

St. Louis’ foreign-born population has been on the rise since 2014. The St. Louis Regional Chamber named it the second-fastest growing region for that population in 2017, and the year before, it was fastest-growing for foreign-born populations, according to KWMU (90.7 FM).

It’s the persistent trend that’s significant, said Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis. The institute provides refugee resettlement and other immigrant services.

She described the surge of foreign-born people as a shot in the arm to the region. They bring new population, and many of them are entrepreneurs or have advanced degrees.

“The immigration population in general helps to feed our community and create opportunity for all St. Louisans,” Crosslin said.

In particular, St. Louis businesses that need STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills can benefit from the increase.

“Certainly workforce areas are very much driving this because we know that we have many openings in the workforce both in STEM areas and hourly areas,” said Betsy Cohen, executive director of the Mosaic Project.

Those companies, and Mosaic Project ambassador companies, should strive to tell stories of their foreign-born populations and spread the word about their successes settling in St. Louis, Cohen said.

But Cohen wants to make sure the message isn’t misconstrued. Companies should make an effort to tell stories of their successful employees in St. Louis, no matter if they’re foreign-born or native-born.

“It’s not one or the other,” Cohen said. “It’s both.”

Editor’s note: This story was corrected to describe the Mosaic Project as a regional initiative within the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and the World Trade Center St. Louis.

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