Wall Street Journal
By Will Connors
March 23, 2017
The population of the onetime tire-making hub of Akron, Ohio, has declined about 12% since 1990.
The decline would have been even worse without an influx of immigrants and refugees, a trend playing out in many former manufacturing cities across the Midwest.
Immigration “helped stem the tide of population loss,” said Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, a Democrat who has staked his legacy on reversing the decline.
Akron is among 46 metropolitan areas in the Midwest where immigrants are helping offset population loss and economic strains caused by people moving away and by the retirements and deaths of native-born residents, according to a new study commissioned by the nonpartisan think tank Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
In some cases, the study says, immigrants are entirely responsible for a city’s population growth.
New census data released Thursday show that six of the 10 urban counties with the biggest population declines were in the Midwest. In all six, the number of people who moved and resettled elsewhere in the U.S.—known as domestic migration—fell while international migration rose, helping somewhat mitigate their population declines. None of the 10 urban counties notching the biggest population gains were in the Midwest.
Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, saw the biggest numerical drop in population. It lost 66,000 more people to domestic migration than it gained. But this was partially offset by 18,000 people who moved in from outside the country.
St. Louis County, Mo., dropped below one million people for the first time since 2011. It, too, saw a decline in domestic migration but an uptick in international migration.
City officials across the region have been working to attract foreign-born residents, aiming to boost dwindling populations and spur business amid an era of manufacturing decline. They are doing so amid a fraught national debate about immigration, with President Donald Trump advocating for a wall on the Mexican border.
Many of the Midwest cities have their work cut out for them.
The 46 areas in the study grew overall by 7% between 2000 and 2015, compared with 14% growth for the nation as a whole. In some metropolitan areas, such as Akron and South Bend, Ind., the increase in foreign-born population was the only bright spot.
“It is really striking how much [these cities] are relying on immigration to keep their population up,” said Rob Paral, a Chicago-based demographer and nonresident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who conducted the study.
Akron was once known as the rubber capital of the world and nicknamed the Rubber City. It was hit hard by layoffs in the 1990s and early 2000s at tire giant Goodyear and other manufacturing companies.
Population loss has slowed more recently as the city worked to lure companies with jobs and revive its downtown, but between 2000 and 2015, the native-born population of the Akron metropolitan area rose 4,806, or 0.7%, to 666,750. Over that same period, the foreign-born population increased by 16,528, or 77%, to 37,884.
Immigrants and refugees are filling entry-level jobs for local manufacturing and food-processing companies that have had trouble hiring for those slots. The newcomers are willing to work longer shifts and at just above Ohio minimum wage, according to Liz Walters, the community outreach director at the Akron International Institute, a nonprofit that helps settle immigrants and refugees in the area.
“In the next 10 years, we anticipate that as much as 50% of the workforce will retire,” Ms. Walters said. “That’s going to be something we have to solve, from many different approaches. No cities grow today without welcoming the foreign-born, and our city leadership really understands that.”
When refugee resettlement in Akron saw a big bump in the early 2000s, tensions arose in the community, and there are “few residents here and there who aren’t supportive of refugee resettlement and immigration in general,” Ms. Walters said, “but by and large the community is overwhelmingly supportive.”
Immigration is responsible for a majority of population growth in five metropolitan areas from 2000-2015, including Chicago and Akron. the study found.
In Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Minneapolis, immigration accounted for at least a quarter of the population growth.
The study didn’t break out the countries of origin for foreign-born residents, and relies on Census Bureau data, which doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants.
The numbers are striking in smaller cities as well.
In Sheboygan, Wis., the native population grew by 749, or 0.7%, to 107,673, from 2000 to 2015. Over that same period the foreign born population rose by 3,349, or 81.7%, to 7,446.
The city has a growing Hmong and Latino population, according to city administrator Darrell Hofland, and Sheboygan officials have made increasing the working-age population one of its four core priorities. “The city and county’s workforce development effort includes attracting immigrants, at least on a temporary basis, to gain skills and become part of the workforce,” said Mr. Hofland.
On Monday, the Sheboygan city council rejected by a 14-1 vote a proposal that would have made clear it wasn’t a sanctuary city, where local officials may withhold some cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Many locals considered the proposal to be anti-immigrant. A recent protest against the proposal drew 300 to 400 people, a “huge turnout compared to what we normally see,” according to Sheboygan Mayor Mike Vandersteen.
Job Hou-Seye, the city council member who introduced the proposal, said he did so on behalf of a constituent worried that Sheboygan would lose some of its federal grant money if it was a sanctuary city.
Mr. Trump has threatened to cut off sanctuary cities from certain federal funds.
In Rockford, Ill., with a population around 340,000, the native population grew by 8,070, or 2.7% from 2000 to 2015. Over those same years, the foreign-born population grew by 12,613, or 63.8%, to 32,370.
“Rockford is really relying on immigrants coming in,” said Norman Walzer, a senior research scholar at Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies.
The town’s economic-development council created an initiative called Rockforward to identify priorities to attract businesses and new residents. The efforts have had some success, Mr. Walzer says, “but it’s gonna take a while” to revitalize the town.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com