Why Feds, Suburbs Should Look to Metros for Models of Immigrant Integration

6.28.13 | On Wednesday, we reviewed the first of two papers examining the effects of immigration on regional resilience, and today we close this series with a summary of the last of the working papers presented by BRR Network colleagues at a closed-door symposium at the Urban Institute on May 31 (full list of papers here).

In “Struggling over Strangers or Receiving with Resilience? The Metropolitics of Immigrant Integration,” John Mollenkopf and Manuel Pastor consider regional reactions to immigration “shock” waves and the implications for national immigration policy as Congress considers reforming our broken immigration system.

They compare case studies of traditional immigration gateways of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; San Jose, CA, where high-tech welcomes immigrants like Blackhawks fans welcome a pair of goals in 17 seconds; Charlotte, NC; Phoenix, AZ, where Arizona’s infamous “Papers, please” law, otherwise known as SB1070, is in effect; and California’s “Inland Empire.”

Pastor and Mollenkopf found a wide spectrum of responses to immigration “shock” waves that turned on regional histories with immigration, political tension between those who would gain or keep power by welcoming immigrants — and thus their votes — and those who stoke the embers of native resentment, and the reaction of local business leadership to that tension. Some areas have developed strong social infrastructure, helping to absorb immigrants and welcome them to varying degrees into the body politic.

Specifically: “Areas with long histories of immigrant integration offer more welcoming receptions to contemporary immigrant populations.”

Moreover: A metropolitan region’s urban core tends to have more resources than its suburban/exurban fringes, and more research is needed to better understand the suburban responses to immigration.

And race still matters.”Places where a single group is negatively framed—particularly likely for poor, undocumented Mexicans—tend to view the whole phenomenon of immigration in that light.” (Hence Arizona’s “Papers, please” law.)

In general, we find that: (1) the basic insight about the challenges of change is correct: it is harder to be resilient when the shock is sharper and large—that is, when areas receive a large influx in the context of little past experience with immigrant populations; (2) resilience is also harder when the mainstream tends to racialize lower-skilled immigrants—that is, when old-timers perceive newcomers to be outside the mainstream and more likely to generate service demands than contribute to the local tax base; (3) resilience and receptivity are more likely when earlier waves of immigrants have “mainstreamed” and become a constituency base (i.e., voters) who support a more positive attitude; (4) resilience and receptivity are more challenging when political entrepreneurs find it advantageous to exploit resentments about the fiscal costs and social stress associated with newcomers; and (5) resilience and receptivity may be more likely when regional actors—for example, a regional business leadership group—believe that promoting a sense of welcome is good for the region and thus act as a counterweight to anti-immigrant political entrepreneurs.

Mollenkopf and Pastor pivot from metropolitan regional experiences to the national immigration reform conversation, declaring the former has much to offer the latter. Specifically, the federal government should adapt “best practices” of the metro regions that best accept and integrate immigrants. Within regions, greater efforts are needed to extend immigrant-welcoming social infrastructure to suburbs, especially since they are increasingly experiencing direct immigration rather than absorbing the children or grandchildren of those who came first to cities.

In our view, regional leaders who want their metropolitan areas to weather the country’s inevitable economic and demographic changes will likely need to weave immigrants into their regional narratives and visions for their regional futures, helping to calm the political waters by highlighting how immigrants and their children can be assets rather than problems. If they do so, they will help facilitate a broad and much-needed recognition that a region’s resilience is based not on struggling with strangers, but rather on welcoming with the warmth that will help newcomers maximize their contributions to our country’s metropolitan future.

Photo/ Neil Kremer

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