Business leaders seek economic expansion through immigration

News-DemocratFebruary 6, 2014 

— Local business leaders and economic analysts believe that opening more opportunities for immigrants will help foster economic growth and expansion in the metro-east.

A St. Louis-based immigration committee known as the St. Louis Mosaic Project has researched the issue and found that immigrants provide great entrepreneurial potential. The group believes the greater St. Louis area has suffered economically because its foreign-born population has lagged behind other metropolitan areas of similar size. This initiative's mission is to make the St. Louis metropolitan area the fastest growing region for immigration by 2020.

An immigration symposium was held Thursday morning in Belleville and included discussion about how increasing the metro-east's immigrant population can raise wages, lower unemployment, increase new business starts and boost real estate values. The symposium was held at Eckert's Country Restaurant in Belleville, near the acres of orchards where seven generations of Chris Eckert's family has grown and sold apples.

Eckert said of the 2 million agricultural employees who work in the United States, 95 percent are not American citizens. He said immigration will help achieve regional prosperity and believes there are misconceptions about migrant workers.

A majority of those who work at the Eckert's Orchards are not immigrant workers. Eckert said his family's orchard only hires about 30 migrant workers each year. The orchard employs 200 workers year round and 500 when apples and other fruit are grown and harvested. He also said that his business relies on migrant workers because they are more efficient.

"We can't do what we want to do without the support of migrant workforce," Eckert said.

These workers are granted H-2A certification, which allows immigrants to temporarily work in the U.S. agricultural industry over a period of time during a year. Employers like Eckert's must provide these workers housing, transportation to and from their native country, pay these workers $11.64 an hour and about $1,000 in fees per visa.

"Those are tough jobs to find with people with skills like that," Eckert said. "They are passionate in what they do and are dedicated to their families."

Jim Pennekamp, director of University Park at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is a founding member of the steering committee that formed two years ago to start the St. Louis Mosaic Project. He said retaining foreign-born university graduates will only help the region compete in the global market and create economic progress. He said immigrants will play a significant role.

"It's a global economy," Pennekamp said. "We're all in this together and we need to reach out across the world."

Anna Crosslin, president and chief executive officer of International Institute St. Louis, said there are significant immigration roots in the metro-east, but the region's foreign-born population has been in great decline. The metro-east was primarily settled by German, Irish and English settlers who comprised more than 57 percent of the population in St. Clair County in 1850 and 39 percent of those living in Madison County that same year.

By 2011, the foreign-born population had dropped to 2.8 percent in St. Clair County and 2.3 percent in Madison County. Most of the immigrants living in the metro-east are migrant farm workers, college students and military personnel and their families.

St. Louis Mosaic Project Director Betsy Cohen said St. Louis was once the fourth-largest city in the country. By 1980, the city ranked 10th and has since fallen to the 19th largest. St. Louis has the 43rd largest population for foreign-born workers -- less than 5 percent of the greater metropolitan area's 2.8 million population.

Statistics from the recent Economic Impact of Immigration on St. Louis Report found that immigrants are 60 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs. The study also finds that foreign-born workers earn 25 percent more than an average native-born American, are 44 percent likely to have at least a college education, 130 percent more likely to have an advanced degree and three times more likely to be highly skilled.

Cohen points to further research from a 2012 study conducted by St. Louis University Economics Chair Jack Strauss about the economic impact that immigration has had on the St. Louis. The study's conclusion points to "the region's relative scarcity of immigrants largely explains our poor economic growth." The study also states that while other top-20 metropolitan areas in population average 40 percent faster economic growth over the past decade, "a lack of immigration explains a considerable portion of the region's slow income growth." Cohen said the St. Louis area should strive to be more globally oriented and welcome to immigrants.

"We need to change if we are going to bring change to the region," Cohen said.

"If we keep doing what we're doing, we're going to get what we've got."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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