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Immigrants Reinvigorating American Communities

Photograph of contiguous buildings along a street. The building facades feature different materials and colors, and the street is lined by sidewalks and trees.
Immigrant populations can help bring resilience and local businesses to neighborhoods that have struggled.

The 14th annual New Partners for Smart Growth conference, which ran from January 29–31 in Baltimore, Maryland, drew hundreds of participants and featured dozens of panels with experts and practitioners discussing such topics as resilience, land preservation, and equitable development, among many others. Among these panels was “The New Faces of Economic Resilience: Immigrants Revitalizing Distressed Communities,” moderated by Megan McConville of the National Association of Development Organizations, which discussed the critical role of immigrant communities in various community contexts.

Jayme Trusty, executive director of Minnesota’s Southwest Regional Development Commission, detailed the positive effects of an influx of immigrants on his rural region, an agriculture-focused area that has lost population due to farm mechanization. Hispanic immigrants began moving to the region to take jobs in the meat-packing industry. One town, Worthington, saw its population rise by approximately 5,000, nearly doubling its population within a decade. The town is now roughly 35 percent Hispanic, and Trusty noted that the influx of Hispanic residents throughout this largely rural area has, in some cases, meant a return of key services. For example, Worthington lacked a bakery for a decade until an immigrant opened a new bakery, as detailed in a Pioneer Press article by Tad Vezner. Southwest Minnesota’s experience is not unique; immigrant growth has been especially strong in rural areas.

The Omaha, Nebraska metropolitan area has also experienced substantial growth in its Hispanic population, particularly Mexican-born immigrants. Carolina Quezada, executive director of the Latino Center of the Midlands, said that Hispanic children now represent more than 30 percent of the students in Omaha Public Schools, Nebraska’s largest school district. She notes that, compared with bigger cities or communities in border states, immigrants to the Omaha area historically have had fewer community outlets, so promoting efforts to make new residents feel included is particularly important. Quezada said that the influx of Hispanic residents has increased foot traffic in the area, making main streets more vibrant. When discussing challenges, Quezada said that banks sometimes have been less willing to invest in small businesses started by immigrants; organizations in the Omaha area have used direct lending as a strategy to “buy down risk” and promote greater bank investment. Nevertheless, because many immigrants send substantial amounts of money to relatives in their home countries, they often have less capital to devote to starting a business.

Two officials working to support immigrant communities in the city of Baltimore offered complementary perspectives on the opportunities and changing demands generated by an increasingly diverse population. Catalina Rodriguez-Lima, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs, noted that Baltimore’s foreign-born population is approximately 50,000, nearly double what it was in the 1990s despite a decline in the city’s overall population over the same period. Rodriguez-Lima explained that these immigrants, many of whom have come from Central American nations, are bringing resilience and local businesses to neighborhoods that have struggled.

As “The Role of Immigrants in Growing Baltimore” notes, Baltimore’s strategy for economic growth and well-being in New American communities hinges on important factors such as enhancing work opportunities for younger immigrants, expanding the availability of housing information and counseling, increasing trust in police, and promoting Baltimore as an inclusive city. In discussing ongoing challenges, Rodriguez-Lima said that tensions between African-American and immigrant communities have been a persistent concern.

Whereas Rodriguez-Lima discussed immigrant populations in broad terms, Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the Baltimore office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), focused on refugee resettlement in the city. Chandrasekar said that of the 50 million refugees worldwide, only 1 percent get to settle in a new country and start a new life. The United States takes in about 70,000 refugees annually; IRC makes sure that those relocated to Baltimore receive assistance with housing, health care, food, job and language training, social services, and legal services. This aid can help refugees integrate into their new surroundings more quickly and successfully, which improves the quality of life of both the individuals who have resettled and their new neighbors.

As American communities of all types respond to local challenges—whether population decline and disinvestment or growth and equity—considering how to embrace and leverage the skills of immigrants will continue to be critical. Immigrants are reviving shrinking rural areas and industrial towns and starting small businesses at a higher rate than their native-born counterparts, helping to strengthen and diversify struggling local economies. More information on the effects immigrants are having on towns and cities nationwide can be found in sources referenced by McConville’s presentation on the conference website.