The state of Missouri and the St. Louis region are shedding its once robust percentages of immigrants, and if nothing is done to stop the trend it will get worse, according to a panel of experts who gathered last night at the Old Post Office downtown to discuss the economic benefits of immigration.
In 1850, 50 percent of the St. Louis population was composed of immigrants, but by 1920, that number had dwindled to 13 percent. The rate dipped as low as 2.5 percent in 1970 before beginning to rise again. With an immigration rate currently between 6 and 7 percent, the St. Louis region is still well below the national average of about 13 percent, according to Anna Peterson Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis and moderator of the panel. And, once again, that percentage is beginning to decline, she said.
What's the reason for the drop? The panelists blamed xenophobic bills in Jefferson City, a state-wide constituency that's too old and white to relate to multiculturalism, and a dearth of jobs in St. Louis.
Former Missouri governor Bob Holden, who sat on the panel, claimed that immigrants start small businesses and land engineering jobs at higher rates than non-immigrants, but that's not happening in Missouri. For a one-time government cheerleader, Holden was down on his state last night.
"We're not as accepting of diverse lifestyles," he said. "We've got to realize that immigrants add value to our culture; they're not a detriment." He added: "Missouri is losing its bellwether status. We lost it in 2008 because of the decreasing percentage of immigrant population here."
The panelists spent significant time pillorying some of the bills being proposed in Jefferson City, including bills that would require legal immigrants to carry a specially stamped license, eliminate driver's exams in foreign languages, and outlaw Sharia law in the state.
On his blog last week, Mayor Francis Slay chimed in: "Immigration has long been the life-force of America's cities, just as cities have been the economic engines of their regions and states. Smart states encourage it. Missouri? No"
Closer to home, the St. Louis region ranks 60th in immigrant population among the country's major metro regions, according to Crosslin. The underlying explanation, the panelists agreed, was a lack of economic opportunity. It might be a chicken-and-egg conundrum, but it's clear that cities that attract business also attract immigrants.
"We're one of the bottom 10 states in the nation when it comes to our number of undocumented workers," explained Crosslin. "It's because they're smart -- they go to where the jobs are."
Holden suggested St. Louis has a branding problem. Compare Chicago's O'Hare Airport, which displays welcoming flags from various countries, with Lambert Airport, where there are none, he said. St. Louis has no flags on its highways, international-sister city partnerships or any public messaging that says to immigrants "we welcome you," Holden said.
The panel was composed of Holden; Kim Allen Murray, with the Immigration Law Project of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri; Joan Suarez, chair of Missouri Immigrant & Refugee Advocates; Reena Hajat Carroll, executive director of Diversity Awareness Partnership; and Pari Sheth, an attorney specializing in immigrant rights.