Creating a welcoming region is an inexact science
When Kishor Pradhan arrived in Pittsburgh six years ago, he was alone. His wife was some 7,500 miles away in a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal, where they had been married. His family was also in a refugee camp. So were his in-laws.It was in such a climate that the region recently assumed a new identity as a place where efforts to stake a middle ground in the polarized debate over drilling and environmental protection are seen as so advanced that they’re drawing interest from regulators and elected officials from countries as far away as Kazakhstan.
Within a few years, they’d all call Pittsburgh home, arriving with the early waves of Bhutanese refugees who’ve been resettled in southwestern Pennsylvania, where they’ve become one of the region’s fastest growing immigrant populations.
“While applying for resettlement, they said that they’d like to go to Pittsburgh,” says Pradhan. “I brought all of my family, my wife, and all of her family. Every one of them is here in Pittsburgh because of me.”
How to develop that kind of critical mass of foreign-born newcomers across southwestern Pennsylvania is part of the puzzle that businesses, nonprofits and local governments are trying to piece together as they explore ways to attract and retain immigrants, whom studies suggest can stimulate population growth and satisfy future workforce demand.
They have their work cut out for them. Only 3.3 percent of the population across the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is foreign born— the lowest rate among the 15 Pittsburgh Today benchmark regions and well below the 12.9 percent of foreign-born residents across the U.S.
Within Carnegie Steel’s mighty HomesteadWorks, danger was spelled veszely and pericolo and opasno and nebezpecno. Still, warnings posted in Hungarian, Italian, Serbo-Croatian and Slovak didn’t cover all of the languages spoken in the mill at the dawn of the 20th century, when more than one in five residents of southwestern Pennsylvania were foreign-born.
The image of Pittsburgh as a region of immigrants has long faded into history. Its population of foreign-born residents, which peaked in 1910 at 448,000, stands at just under 78,000, even though it’s been rising for longer than a decade.
Reestablishing the region as a destination for immigrants is increasingly seen as a prerequisite for continued economic and population growth. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that immigrants will be the main driver of U.S. population growth by mid-century. Those newcomers hold the potential to expand the workforce by filling the need for both the low-skilled and highly skilled workers necessary to start more businesses and expand existing ones.
Although it varies from region to region, the educational level of immigrants to the U.S. is increasing overall. The Brookings Institute reports, for example, that 30 percent of working-age immigrants have a bachelor’s degree, which is greater than the rate of those without a high school diploma.
Southwestern Pennsylvania’s immigrant population is relatively well educated. More than 53 percent of immigrants in the Pittsburgh MSA have a bachelor’s degree or higher, the highest such rate among 50 metropolitan regions ranked by the Census Bureau. And when Brookings rated regions by the skill levels of workingage immigrants, Pittsburgh topped the list of places that were once major immigration ports, such as Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit and Milwaukee.
What the region hasn’t been for decades is a place that attracts immigrants in numbers large enough to have a significant impact on population trends, particularly the number of lower-skilled immigrants necessary for such growth
“When you take out the older folks who have been here a long time and the highly professional folks, the number left is tiny compared to other places,” says Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh University Center for Social and Urban Research.
Becoming a Destination
Rebuilding the region’s immigrant population has gotten considerably more attention in recent years, but it remains a work in progress. One reason is that creating a community that immigrants find welcoming is an imprecise science outside of traditional points of entry, such as New York and San Francisco.
Immigrants represent a range of cultures, education levels and languages. The kind of support they need to successfully integrate into their new communities varies widely. Those factors and more test the will and resources of cities, counties and regions, particularly those not accustomed to hosting them in large numbers.
“It requires a level of cultural competency and flexibility to interact with all of these different groups,” says Melanie Harrington, CEO of Vibrant Pittsburgh, a nonprofit created to promote diversity in the region with a focus on the workforce. “That kind of cultural competency and flexibility is what the region will need to develop as we grow and more people come here.”
For some, language is a considerable barrier. For others, like Pradhan, it is not. He arrived with a command of English— but not a driver’s license or the ability to drive. And his first job and apartment were in Cranberry, Butler County, where public transit is scarce. “So to do grocery shopping it would cost me more for the taxicab than what the groceries cost.”
Unlike well-educated professionals recruited to work in the region, refugees often need help with the most basic necessities. Jobs, housing, transportation, and navigating cultural differences and language barriers are high on the list of the challenges they face when they arrive. Finding a place to live is particularly difficult for many refugees who don’t have the income or haven’t yet established the credit to persuade landlords to accept them as tenants.
And the burdens of adapting are not all on the shoulders of immigrants. Local residents, schools, agencies and others have to work at understanding their new neighbors as well. Missteps, for example, can be as subtle as using an English-speaking child in the family as an interpreter.
“When a child starts interpreting for the parents it changes the dynamic in the family. Then the kid is holding the power, and that’s not a good dynamic,” says Leslie Aizenman, director of refugee services for the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Pittsburgh. “It’s not best practice for a provider to do that. But it does happen.”
The opportunity to find jobs is one of the strongest reasons immigrants come to a region. Being able to bond to others like themselves is one of the chief reasons they decide to stay. “Social support is an incredibly important element of making it in a place,” says Adriana Dobrzycka, Vibrant Pittsburgh’s community outreach and inclusion manager.
Attitudes and Actions
One of the most important factors that determine whether immigrants come to a region or city and stay has less to do with them than it does with the expressed or perceived desire of the community’s residents and leaders to accept them as neighbors and make them feel at home.
“You have to have that will among enough of the general population to become a welcoming environment,” says David Lubell, executive director ofWelcoming America, a nonprofit that helps cities and counties become a place where immigrants choose to live. “That tells immigrants that the people want them there and then they start telling relatives and friends to come.”
Allegheny County and City of Pittsburgh leaders have gone public with their support of local efforts to attract immigrants. The county, for example, recently became aWelcoming America partner, pledging to work with the groups engaged in improving the environment for foreign-born newcomers. And officials made clear their belief that the region is best served if it’s seen as open to all. “We’ve traded people, like my grandfather, who came here to work with their arms and backs, for those who’ve come to work with their minds,” says Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. “But we still need the cross section of immigration in order to build up neighborhoods within the city.”
Local support for building the immigrant population and smoothing the transition of newcomers has grown to include scores of stakeholders ranging from those who’ve long been engaged, such as refugee agencies, to human services, businesses, universities, law clinics and nonprofits such as Vibrant Pittsburgh and Global Pittsburgh, whose efforts include attracting international students. And an Allegheny County Department of Human Services advisory council created to identify and address issues affecting immigrants suggests coordination among stakeholders is improving.
Both county and city officials say that rather than taking the reins, local government’s role is likely to be one of supporting the ongoing efforts of those stakeholders to make the region a more attractive immigrant destination. “I think there is a role for government to push and coax and encourage,” says Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “If they have a partner in government, they move forward.”
Such an approach is one of several seen in regions hoping to become new immigration gateways. None have emerged as the best model, says Lubell. “This is still new, and nobody has been runaway successful. It takes time.” In Nashville, for example, the business community and nonprofits took the lead. In Dayton, it was city government that convened and led a coalition of nonprofits, businesses and others in 2011 to draft a strategy for making the city more immigrant-friendly.
The Welcome Dayton blueprint includes initiatives to expand language services for immigrants and government employees, stimulate immigrant hiring, and provide cross-cultural competency training. Dayton also is enacting immigrant-sensitive law enforcement policies, such as limiting immigration status checks to only those who are suspected of committing a serious crime. Dayton officials found several reasons to act, not the least of which was the hope that a surge of newcomers would reverse a steady drop in population, revive an economy struggling to recover from recession, and heal some of the damage caused by both, including vacant housing and blight.
“Number one, it’s the right thing to do.We’re an immigrant country,” says Dayton City Manager Tim Riordan. “And we saw these immigrants coming in buying and taking care of houses in the city. We have lost a lot of population. So, when you’ve got a group coming in and buying the cheap, crummy houses and fixing them up, that’s a good thing.”
Job growth and several other conditions important to growing an immigrant population have improved in southwestern Pennsylvania, a point made clear last June to those who traveled to Detroit for the first convening of Global Great Lakes, a network of cities looking to promote immigration that includes Dayton, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis and Columbus. It was also clear that the Pittsburgh region has a long way to go to become a new gateway.
“Pittsburgh stacked up well among peer regions because of the participation of our universities, unemployment rate, the resilience of the economy during and after the recession, the healthcare network and tech sector. But we’re not as far along in developing a strategy to attract and retain immigrants,” says Thomas Buell, director of Global Pittsburgh’s Study Pittsburgh initiative.
That would mean developing a strategy to attract more immigrants like Pradhan, who six years after arriving in Pittsburgh, lives in Oakdale with his family and has an information technology job at Highmark, downtown. “I love being in Pittsburgh,” he says. “I’ve never given a second thought to moving out of this place, not even to California.”