April 5, 2013 1:36 pm

US industrial heartland weighs up immigration reforms

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Ibrahim Vajzovic’s life has changed dramatically in the 18 years since he arrived in the US from his native Bosnia.

Not only did he learn English, but he also earned a PhD. After starting out in an entry-level printing job, he now owns three companies – real estate, insurance and trucking – that have total revenues of about $10m a year and employ 50 people.

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And he aims to be a good citizen.

“We try to be ethical and give back to the community by creating good-paying jobs and developing more properties,” says Mr Vajzovic. “We reinvest everything we have.”

Mr Vajzovic is one of an estimated 70,000 Bosnians who live in greater St Louis, the largest metropolitan area in Missouri, and are helping to regenerate the area.

“So many of them arrived with a trade or a well-grounded set of skills, thanks to the Yugoslavian education system, so they have been able to fill jobs here in St Louis that we were having difficulty filling,” says Anna Crosslin, president of the International Institute of St Louis, which helps new immigrants settle.

Like many parts of the industrial heartland, Missouri has suffered from the long, slow decline of the US’s manufacturing sector and a related sharp decline in population.

In the last decade alone, an estimated 44,000 native-born Americans have left St Louis. But some 31,000 immigrants have arrived, boosting the economy by paying taxes and creating jobs, as well as staunching the population bleed.

This tale of the positive impact that Bosnians are having in the area was highlighted in a new report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, making the case for why regional economies like those of the Midwest need comprehensive immigration reform.

“St Louis employers tell us the same thing we’re hearing across the nation – there are skill gaps across the entire spectrum of jobs,” said Joe Reagan, president and chief executive of the St Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association. “It’s hard to find people ready to contribute. Certainly people follow jobs, but jobs also follow people.”

The thorny political issue of immigration is at the top of the legislative agenda in the US this year, as President Barack Obama tries to make good on his promise to overhaul the broken system and deal with the estimated 11m unauthorised immigrants in the US.

Bipartisan groups in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate are now working on bills aimed at winning broad support in both the Republican-controlled lower chamber and the Democrat-run upper chamber.

Although there are still many hurdles to be overcome – not least the question of whether the undocumented immigrants should be given a pathway to earning citizenship – analysts say the prospects are the best in years, driven by rapidly changing demographics that have seen Hispanics become the largest voting bloc.

While much of the attention has been on states that border Mexico and have large illegal populations, the broken immigration system is hurting states as far north as the Canadian border because of their declining populace.

“Midwest leaders want to ensure sustainable growth, jobs, population stability, and quality of life,” the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a think-tank, wrote in its report, entitled US Economic Competitiveness at Risk: A Midwest Call to Action on Immigration Reform. “Immigrants are an essential ingredient for this future. America’s heartland can wait no longer,” it said.

The 12 Midwestern states now have large immigrant communities, from the Bosnians in St Louis and the Arabs in Dearborn, Michigan to the Hmong and Somalis in Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota. Some 40 per cent of the dairy workers in Wisconsin are Mexican, while a quarter of all doctors in the region were born abroad.

While these new communities have not always been welcomed or had an easy integration, a bipartisan group of political, business, non-profit and religious leaders put together the report to call for further reform.

“The economic competitiveness of the Midwest is in jeopardy because of the political logjam in Washington,” says Rachel Bronson, the Chicago Council’s vice-president of studies.

The report calls for comprehensive reform in line with the plan being formulated by the bipartisan “gang of eight” senators: more visas for high-skilled, educated workers, as well as for entrepreneurs to help existing companies innovate and establish new businesses. It also calls for legal entry for lower-skilled workers, especially in communities with stagnant or declining populations, and guest-worker visas so seasonal employers in the Midwest are able to hire foreign workers quickly, easily and legally.

It also urges Congress to create for a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 1.3m undocumented immigrants in the Midwest.

“Most are otherwise law-abiding people, doing critical jobs that need to be done – work that bolsters Midwest prosperity and creates jobs for Americans throughout the local economy,” the report says. Driving them out would be “a disaster for the Midwest economy”, it says.

But advocates of tougher immigration controls dismiss the notion that immigrants are good for the economy.

“What we would like to know is how would it help to give work permits to 11m illegal aliens, 7m of them who are already working, when 20m Americans can’t find full-time work?” asks Dave Gorak, executive director of the Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration, a group that warns of the long-term consequences of present immigration laws.

“These jobs are already being done by American citizens so the idea that American citizens won’t do doesn’t wash,” he said.

Nor does Mr Gorak countenance the idea that the US needs more highly skilled immigrants. “There are 1.8m Americans with engineering degrees who are unemployed,” he contends.

But Bob Holden, governor of Missouri between 2001 and 2005, said in the report that the Midwest needed new residents for its economic survival: “If we send the message that immigrants are not welcome, then decline will follow.”

An increasing number of politicians from across the politican spectrum are realising tha this forecast applies not only to the economy but also to their own electoral prospects if they do not get behind immigration reform.

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