Immigrants often are portrayed as an economic burden on Americans, demanding social services while bringing few skills and driving down the wages of Americans. Donald Trump exploited such stereotypes in the 2016 campaign, going so far as to claim that Mexicans coming to the United States were bringing drugs and crime. To hear the critics of robust immigration, you’d think shutting off the flow of people coming from other countries would be a tonic for a tired economy.
A lot of Midwestern mayors know better. In recent years, they have seen native citizens leaving their cities for the suburbs or the Sun Belt, depleting neighborhoods and eroding tax bases. What has helped keep these cities afloat has been the arrival of immigrants and refugees in numbers that no one could have anticipated a generation ago.
It’s not news here that Chicago has lost people. Since 1990, the population has fallen by nearly 79,000. Chicago has plenty of company in this part of country. The numbers in Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee also have shrunk.
But while native Americans have been heading out, foreigners have been streaming in. “Immigrants are a demographic lifeline” in many places, according to a new report written by demographer Rob Paral for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The foreign-born population of Chicago has risen from 435,232 in 1980 to 572,066 today. Milwaukee and Grand Rapids doubled their immigrant numbers; Minneapolis tripled them. In 13 large Midwestern cities, the total foreign-born population has grown by 45 percent over the past 25 years.
Far from dragging down urban economies, these newcomers have provided a much-needed boost – “reviving city neighborhoods, becoming an important part of the local labor force, buying homes and opening businesses,” says the report. “Foreign-born workers are ensuring the vibrancy of key Midwestern industries, including health care, agriculture and hospitality.”
This is consistent with what most economists have long argued: Immigrants come in search of opportunity and bring skills and drive that American industries need. When they get here, they not only fill jobs and open shops but spend money, often in areas that had been drained of customers and businesses. The net economic effect is clearly positive.
The benefits go beyond dollars. Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson’s research on Chicago’s neighborhoods indicates that immigrants have also made cities safer. “Rather than generating crime, high concentrations of immigrants appear to reduce it,” he has written. Chicago’s crime rate, though intolerably high, is well below what it was in the 1990s. Immigrants’ focus on work and family helped bring it down.
In light of all this, we hope nothing will come of efforts in Washington to expel undocumented young people and sharply curtail legal immigration. Foreigners have been a boon to the Midwest, especially during a decade of economic upheaval. They plant their roots; the rest of us share in the harvest.