Migration and the Metropolis

January 9th, 2013

In Practice to Policy: Lessons from Local Leadership on Immigrant Integration (full report, pdf), we look at what good practices can tell us about the role of local governments in immigrant integration. Four international experts contribute analysis and policy insights on the range of municipal levers available to promote both immigrants and city success.

Audrey Singer
The Brookings Institution

In the 21st century, immigration continues to change cities and nations worldwide. One-fifth of the world’s immigrants live in the United States where the foreign-born population now exceeds 40 million, making up 13% of the national population. Over the last two decades, nearly 20 million immigrants arrived in the U.S. These unprecedented levels of immigration have changed the character of many places, urban, suburban and rural. And the U.S. is not alone – no less than 15 European Union nations have foreign-born populations exceeding 10%, while in Australia and Canada, immigrants make up 22% and 20% of the general populations, respectively.

While we often think of immigrants as moving from one country to another, really they arrive from a particular place and settle in a particular community, usually a metropolitan area. In the U.S., for example, the vast majority of immigrants (95%) live within one of 366 metropolitan areas, which vary considerably in size, industrial structure, and demographic composition. And within metropolitan areas, where they live varies: they reside in primary cities, dense and mature suburbs, and emerging suburbs and exurbs extending to the urban fringe. Where an immigrant arrives and settles is very important to the immigrant integration process, which largely takes place on the local level. Immigrants live in neighborhoods, go to work, set up businesses, and send their children to school – all of which happens at the local level.

These metropolitan contexts are important for understanding how immigrants fit into local labour and housing markets, and how they interact with institutions such as schools, transportation systems and healthcare systems. In many countries, especially those built on immigration, several metropolitan areas have had a continuous history of receiving immigrants. In the United States, the cities of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston are the largest continuous immigrant gateways. In Europe, major capitals like London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris have played similar roles. These places have been incorporating immigrants for over 100 years and have a thick social service infrastructure and strong identification as immigrant destinations. In the United States, Los Angeles, Houston and Miami are among the largest immigrant destinations, yet their experience began only after World War II. Other cities, such as Dublin and Calgary, have just recently begun to receive immigrants in large numbers in the past two decades or less, and may be less prepared for the changes that affect major institutions.

In the United States, due in part to economic restructuring and “new economy” industrial growth in technology and service sectors, metropolitan settlement trends have taken at least two new turns over the past two decades. After decades of just a few established places drawing the majority of immigrants, new opportunities in metro areas with little history of receiving immigrants saw significant spikes to their foreign-born populations. Coming out of the 2000s, metropolitan areas that experienced the greatest numeric growth of their foreign-born population held some surprises. These “second-tier” metro areas emerged as immigrant destinations beginning in the 1990s such as Atlanta, Austin (Texas), Phoenix, and Las Vegas. In Europe, cities like Barcelona, Copenhagen and Malmo have experienced a similar process. Some old immigrant gateways have now re-emerged as major destinations; for example, Philadelphia, Seattle and Sacramento (California) in the United States. Counterparts elsewhere include Bremen (Germany) and Winnipeg (Canada).

In a second shift, immigrants in the U.S. and Canada are bypassing cities in great numbers and settling directly in suburban areas. In the early 20th century wave of immigration, during the great period of industrialization, immigrants moved to cities to be close to jobs. Now as jobs have decentralized and as suburban opportunities have opened up, there are more immigrants residing in suburbs than in cities. Housing availability and affordability, the presence of ethnic communities, and the ubiquity of the automobile influence immigrants’ decisions to settle in suburban areas. Even three decades ago, similar shares of immigrants lived in the cities and the suburbs of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, for example, but by 2010, only 33 % of U.S. immigrants lived in central cities of the 100 largest metro areas, while 51 % lived in their suburbs. Similarly, in 2006, of recent immigrants to the traditional gateway of Vancouver, Canada, 46% actually lived in the suburbs Richmond, Burnaby and Surrey.

Immigrants have made inroads to new destination areas, large and small, urban and suburban. The shift to suburban areas means that central cities are no longer the dominant entry point for immigrants and the consequence is that suburban areas are becoming more diverse places with regard to race and ethnicity, language, and religion.

These new patterns are not without conflict and stress. Major institutions in new metropolitan destinations now confront serving this diverse population. Many areas in the United States have yet to recover from the affects of the recession and immigrants are often viewed as competitors for jobs and scarce public resources. In some of those places that experienced recent fast immigrant growth, state and local measures to control immigration, especially unauthorized immigration, have been proposed or legislated.

Many urban areas have welcomed immigrants, including places with well-established foreign-born populations, and those that started receiving and integrating immigrants more recently. Metropolitan areas are on the front lines of the economic integration of immigrants. Increasingly, some cities such as former U.S. gateways Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland are endeavouring to attract and retain immigrants to stem population loss and to stimulate economic activity. Some areas are also investing in immigrants that are already here, as a strategy to help local businesses and economies, as well as immigrants, their families and the communities in which they live. Cities that are the most forward-looking, that have the most pragmatic view on immigrants, are the ones that are reaching out and creating environments that immigrants can not only survive in but thrive in. They are putting out the welcome mat for immigrant newcomers.

Audrey Singer is a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, United States. Her areas of expertise include demography, international migration, United States immigration policy, and urban and metropolitan change. Her work currently focuses on the new geography of immigration, the economic, social, political, and civic integration of immigrants, and state and local responses to immigration. The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit public policy organization that conducts research and provides innovative and practical policy recommendations.

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