Cities in America’s Heartland Relying on Immigrants to Counter Population Losses

As COVID-19 crises continues to sweep through the nation, the lives of millions of Americans have been turned upside down. Schools are closed, businesses are shuttered, and the economy is imploding. And with no concrete timeline in place for when the virus will be contained, much of the country remains on virtual lockdown as people shelter in place at home as much as possible in an effort to slow the infection rate.

This global event comes at a time when many cities in the United States’ heartland are in desperate need of the hard work and ingenuity of immigrants. A report released earlier this month from Reuters details how major hubs, such as St. Louis, MO, Detroit, MI, Milwaukee, WI, and Akron, OH, have experienced a precipitous population drop over the past decade, due to the “brain drain” of skilled and educated inhabitants relocating to larger coastal cities, where job options are more plentiful. As native-born denizens leave to pursue these opportunities, cities have had to rely on foreign nationals to try to mitigate the losses. St. Louis, one of the cities most impacted by this phenomenon, saw its population decline by more than 10,000 people between 2010 and 2018. Were it not for an influx of more than 15,000 immigrants into the city over the same time period, the plummet would have been substantially more severe.

Reuters found 18 U.S. cities with similar population declines in recent years that have been ameliorated by immigration. Most of them are in rustbelt regions, which have seen the manufacturing jobs that sustained them in decades past wither away in an increasingly global economy. Immigrants, attracted by the relatively low cost of living in these areas, have given the communities a much-needed boost by moving in, starting businesses, and raising families. As Betsy Cohen, executive director of the St. Louis Mosaic Project, a local initiative whose goal is to transform St. Louis into the fastest growing immigrant hub in the country, explained to Reuters, “When these [population] numbers fall, it is hard to have that growth in the region we want. Every person counts. All skill lines. All families. We need people.” [See ‘They’re Addicted to Me:’ How Immigrants Keep U.S. Heartland Cities Afloat by Howard Schneider, Reuters, 05.Mar.2020.]

But according to recent immigration data, cities like St. Louis may soon find themselves in a precarious position. In 2018, the U.S. recorded its lowest immigration rates in more than a decade, with a 202,000 increase in immigrants. That’s less than a third of the 2010 rates. This steep drop in immigrant arrivals is due, in large part, to the Trump Administration, which campaigned on a promise to slow immigration overall. With COVID-19 threatening to impart Depression era unemployment levels, as businesses close shop and lay off workers, our nation’s increasingly anti-immigrant sentiments are more dangerous than ever. The hard work, ingenuity, and patriotism of our immigrants is vital to our recovery from this unprecedented pandemic, and we must include them as we strive to rebuild the American dream.


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