Anna Crosslin, president and CEO at the International Institute of St. Louis, will speak Tuesday at Lewis and Clark Community College during a panel discussion on immigration as a form of economic development.
As business owners around the River Bend seek ways to sustainably build the area’s economy, numbers are naturally taken into consideration.
And when the St. Louis Mosaic Project and the International Institute of St. Louis came to Lewis and Clark Community College Tuesday to discuss ways to build regional prosperity through immigration, their numbers spoke louder than words.
Leading the conversation, sponsored by the RiverBend Growth Association and the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, was Betsy Cohen, executive director of the St. Louis Mosaic Project; and Anna Peterson Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis.
Though some of their services differ, the organizations share similar goals.
“Our goal is to be the fastest-growing major U.S. metropolitan area for immigration by 2020,” Cohen said. “We must aim to be a cultural mosaic, a place that is truly welcoming.”
But statistics show not many immigrants are coming to the St. Louis area – at least not permanently.
“Those that do come fall into several categories; foreign students at colleges and universities, military affiliated with Scott Air Force Base and migrant farm workers,” Crosslin said.
The St. Louis Mosaic Project is a program seeks to welcome international newcomers to the St. Louis area, promoting the community’s neighborhoods, schools, hospitals and cultural destinations.
The International Institute of St. Louis was founded in 1919. They offer adjustment services for refugees and immigrants to expand the richness of St. Louis’ diversity and help revitalize the economy.
The St. Louis metropolitan area has about 126,500 immigrants, and immigrants comprise 4.5 percent of the region’s population, according to a 2012 study by Jack Strauss, director of the Simon Center for Regional Forecasting at Saint Louis University.
St. Louis has the 19th largest metropolitan area in the United States, but Strauss’ study shows that other metros in the top 20 average four to five times the number of foreign-born residents.
“The region’s relative scarcity of immigrants largely explains our poor economic growth,” Strauss said in his 2012 report, “The Economic Impact of Immigration in St. Louis.” “Other metros in the top 20 averaged 40 percent faster economic growth over the past decade.”
His report demonstrates that a lack of immigration partially explains the region’s slow income growth.
Yearly unemployment statistics from the RiverBend Growth Association show Madison County with an 8.3 unemployment rate and Jersey County at 8.7, higher than the year before. And as the manufacturing jobs that once made the area prosper begin to dwindle, Strauss’ study begins to hit close to home.
But as area businessmen begin to explore new options to build the River Bend’s economy, new opportunity becomes visible on the horizon.
The Illinois Immigration Council reported this year that nearly one in seven Illinoisans are foreign-born immigrants, with almost half of them being naturalized U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote.
The report also states that “New Americans” — immigrants and the children of immigrants — account for 10 percent of registered voters in the state, with immigrants not only being integral to the state’s economy as workers, but also accounting for billions of dollars in tax revenue and consumer purchasing power.
So as the area’s immigrant population increases, so does the need to better suit them.
Rob Schwartz, vice president for retail banking at the Bank of Edwardsville, was among the business leaders in attendance Tuesday. He said his company is in the early stages of beginning an outreach program that puts new Americans financially on the right track.
“We want to keep them (immigrants) away from payday loan companies because, more times than not, their high interest rates create a downward spiral many can’t escape,” Schwartz said. “We are looking for ways to provide traditional banking services for immigrants, setting them up with checking accounts and providing home loans instead of renting, because more home owners will only help the area’s economy.”
Crosslin and Cohen say through coordination and communication with New Americans, the area can begin the economic healing process.
Each suggested several ways to do so; launching a welcoming center, creating online ethnic communities, promoting policies through political leadership, engaging business community, connecting to local community, including international students; and by communicating with Missouri, Illinois and federal legislators to open up to new ideas on immigration.