In the midst of the debate over the largest potential immigration reform legislation in 50 years, American communities struggling with decades of population loss and economic decline are being revitalized by newcomers. The economic contribution of immigrants in high-skilled fields is relatively well-known, but less acknowledged are the contributions that "blue collar" immigrants make in revitalizing depressed communities and economies, both as manual laborers and small business entrepreneurs.

In Rust Belt communities such as Baltimore, immigration has slowed — and in some cases reversed — decades of population loss. In July 2012, after 60 years of population decline, the Census Bureau reported an increase in Baltimore's population. The increase was attributed in part to growing international migration.

In 2010, more than 250,000 immigrants lived in the Baltimore metropolitan area — a 72 percent increase since 2000, when 146,000 immigrants called the region home.

City leaders have recognized their contributions. In an interview last year with National Public Radio, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Baltimore is "open for business, particularly in the area of Latino immigrants. We've actively recruited Latino immigrants to Baltimore, and when they come here, they're thriving. Many have opened businesses, employed individuals. ... I think it's a win-win."

In addition to supporting communities that are experiencing overall population loss, immigrants — including low-skill immigrants — are making disproportionate contributions to Rust Belt economies. Research by the Fiscal Policy Institute found that although immigrants make disproportionate contributions to the U.S. economy overall, they make even more disproportionate economic contributions based on their population in Rust Belt cities like Baltimore. This is true more in the Rust Belt than in traditional immigrant gateway cities like New York, Los Angeles and Miami.

As they have been throughout much of U.S. history, immigrants are also a disproportionate number of our country's entrepreneurs, and their business initiative is evident in revitalizing Rust Belt commercial corridors. Immigrant entrepreneurship is an American tradition. Andrew Carnegie escaped poverty as a child in Scotland, came to the United States in 1848 and became a captain of industry and leading philanthropist. Today immigrant entrepreneurs — large and small — contribute dynamism and innovation to the economy.

While immigrants are 13 percent of the national population and 16 percent of the labor force, they comprise 18 percent of small business owners. Immigrants' propensity for business ownership is even more pronounced in the Rust Belt. In Baltimore the foreign-born represent 9 percent of the population and 21 percent of entrepreneurs. Nationally, immigrant-owned small businesses employ 4.7 million people and generate $776 billion in income.

But the efforts of business and civil society in Rust Belt cities to attract newcomers are sometimes at cross purposes with the federal immigration enforcement system that targets immigrant families, workers, and entrepreneurs who support local economies.

In order to realize their full potential economic impact in the Rust Belt, unauthorized immigrants need legalization and a path to citizenship. Without this, unauthorized immigrants are subject to living in a climate of fear even as they work to assist America's struggling cities and towns to survive. While immigration alone is not a sufficient policy tool for urban and rural renewal, it is part of the solution, and there is a growing body of research on the contributions of immigrants — including low-skill immigrants — to economic growth and even job creation for U.S. natives.

It is up to federal policymakers to reform our immigration system so that newcomers can support their families and make a fuller economic contribution to the nation — particularly in the cities and towns that need them most.

Andrew Wainer is a senior immigration policy analyst of Bread for the World Institute and author of the report, "A Tale of Two Cities (and a Town): Immigrants in the Rust Belt His email is awainer@bread.org.


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