Could a large influx of culturally-similar refugees help save Detroit?
July 27, 2009 8:58 AM   Subscribe

St. Louis, Missouri lost over half its population from 1950-1990. Since the mid-1990s, 80,000 Bosnian immigrants (coming to represent over 20% of the city's population) have established communities that have saved large areas of housing stock from decay. In which other instances have large, permanent groups of non-migrant, non-domestically employed immigrants been settled en masse helping to shore-up a city that is losing population but otherwise has the infrastructure to accommodate more? Has there been any debate or discussion about hypothetical proposals to encourage something similar in Detroit?

To clarify: I'm looking for "pull" factors, not "push" factors. (In other words: not "there are a lot of Irish in Boston because of the Irish potato famine".) Not (just) "[specific group]'s needs for X caused them to come here", but "our [individual city]'s desire to stave-off atrophy caused us to incentivize large numbers of [specific group] relocating here." And specifically: examples where a city with waning population is to be rejuvenated, not where a booming city is to be expanded

Additionally, because my curiosity is specifically in its applicability/inapplicability for the problems in Detroit, I'm less interested in things that have brought only certain types of professionals over (Southern Asian medical personnel would be one example of many), or things that've brought populations of people to fill (semi-)rural labor-intensive industries (Latin-American workers in Midwest meat-packing CAFOs, early-20th century Appalachian coal-mining, or Chinese rail workers would be examples).

Have people proposed, discussed, or debated the applicability of encouraging similar things? Where are these proposals or debates?

As always, thanks for your ideas and your expertise. I am not a professional in this field, but I am willing to read challenging things.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
How about a whole country? There is a lot of discussion going on at the moment about attracting immigrants to Scotland where the population is aging and shrinking. Try this Google News search as a starting off point.
posted by IanMorr at 9:28 AM on July 27, 2009

Lowell, Massachusetts has had a very large influx of Cambodians in the last 30 years or so. As a result the city has returned to a population of 105,000 (it peaked at 106,000 in 1910 and the dropped to 92,000 in 1980). It does not appear they were specifically incentivized; they were simply attracted after an initial nucleus settled there. And presumably real estate was affordable and job opportunities existed.

This map will help you locate other cities around the country with large population of a specific immigrant group (hover cursor over the blue dots). The influx in some cases took place long ago. You can also click on each ethnic group listed on the left and get a map and table of the municipalities with the largest concentrations. (Bosnians are not listed, for some reason.)
posted by beagle at 9:39 AM on July 27, 2009

Lewiston, Maine received a large influx of Somali refugees and immigrants.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:42 AM on July 27, 2009

New immigrants, specifically from Mexico, have changed the population dynamics in the Great Plains region of the US. There are a lot of towns here that would have died off if not for immigrants coming to work in the meat packing industry. A lot of the new immigrants have started businesses and are raising their families here, legally. There's one city in Nebraska that I know of that has a bunch of new salsa dance clubs, bakeries, restaurants, small stores and churches started by new immigrants.

What's really frustrating is that the level of bigotry continues to expand the more the population changes. For example, a lot of these small towns have aging populations that are having to close their mom and pop businesses because none of their kids want to take them over. Rather than take on a new immigrant as an apprentice, white business owners are closing down their businesses. Most people here assume that all Latino looking people are illegal immigrants, taking advantage or the "system." Ironically, the Great Plains/Midwestern region of the US is made up of people whose grandparents immigrated here from Europe and were chastised and treated with bias by the locals when they arrived.

I agree that it would be great if new immigrants could help revive dying cities in parts of the US. It is such a complicated, hot topic right now though, and would take major work and effort on behalf of the established white folks who currently run most of the infrastructures in these places.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:46 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I forgot to link the map. It's here.
posted by beagle at 10:05 AM on July 27, 2009

I think in the case of some ethnic influxes from overseas it begins with a church sponsoring refugees, like the Hmong in LaCrosse Wisconsin. The initial immigrants establish churches and grocery stores and once the infrastructure exists, if there is cheap housing and jobs people will come to take advantage of the resources.

When my family came from Ireland in the middle of the 20th century, it was a common story to run into someone from the old country on the streets of the west side of Chicago. The churches held Irish dances, jobs were plentiful and housing was fairly cheap. My former co-worker moved into the exact same neighborhood twenty years later along with many others from the Mississippi delta for the same reason. Her high school reunion from Clarksdale, Mississippi was held in Chicago because all but two of the graduates lived in the same neighborhood on the west side.

With Detroit you may have available housing, but the job market for unskilled labor is just not there. The state of Michigan is not going to welcome newcomers that will tax an already overburdened social service network.
It does make you think that if is there is a group with a ready made economic base, Detriot would be an ideal base of operations; transportation, inexpensive commercial property and housing and a city and state that should be welcome to innovative ideas for tifs and tax incentives (but reading adbout Detriot government, I don't know if they are).
posted by readery at 10:16 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

This chart gives you an idea of the increasing Latino population in the midwest.

In Omaha, they've reinvigorated the South Omaha Historical District, an area that was home to Czech immigrants a century ago.

You may also be interested in the movie And God Grew Tired of Us: THe Lost Boys of Sudan which explores the lives of several Sudanese refugees as they become contributing members of society in the U.S.
posted by Ostara at 11:57 AM on July 27, 2009

Detroit is home to one of the largest Arab populations in country. Fort Wayne, IN has a large population of Bangladeshis, and South Bend, IN, has a large community of Rwandans.


Because back in the day, when various political and/or economic factors encouraged large numbers of people to leave their native countries for the US, a family or two settled in a particular location. This could have been at random or because, like readery suggests, various church or other non-profit groups invited them. After that, the first refugee families invited and/or were followed by other people they knew, who in turn invited/were followed by other families, etc. Pretty soon you've got a few thousand people. No one did anything on purpose. These things just happen.

This story is applicable to most of the large ethnic communities in a particular place, even ones like New York, Boston, and Chicago. The story just happened longer ago in those places. The Arab and African/South Asian communities you hear about tend to be of more recent vintage, but they follow the same basic pattern: one family comes and sets up shop, and pretty soon a whole town has immigrated.
posted by valkyryn at 12:01 PM on July 27, 2009

It's Dearborn that has the large Arab population.

mattb, another issue with Detroit was the then-mayor expressing concern about post 9/11 "terrorist" attacks he, ridiculously, feared would be committed by his own Arab citizens when his real constituents (ie black "real" Detroiters) were already murdering one another at a rate that was 800% greater than the national average. When you have a racist bigot for a mayor you don't see a lot of in-migration. Windsor Ontario has about as many foreign-born as does Detroit when metro Detroit is more than ten times the size of metro Windsor.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 12:59 PM on July 27, 2009

Out of interest, how did the Bosnians "get in"?
posted by A189Nut at 1:21 PM on July 27, 2009

Lewiston, Maine received a large influx of Somali refugees and immigrants.

While Lewiston has a huge Somali population, this was not by choice on the part of the town reps. The mayor even wrote an open letter to the Somali community urging them to look elsewhere when relocating because of the enormous stress the population has placed on town infrastructure.

This actually relates rather well with the original question. Lewiston is the second-largest city in Maine, but after all the mills closed in the 50s and 60s there's very little blue-collar work to be found. The unemployment rate for the Somali population in Lewiston is about 50%.

I reckon the same thing would happen in Detroit. Without jobs, refugees will be a burden on city services in an already cash-strapped Detroit.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:24 PM on July 27, 2009

Out of interest, how did the Bosnians "get in"?

Refugee status. Refugees, Annual Report, Fiscal Year 1997 (PDF): 27,840 applications approved.
posted by smackfu at 6:03 PM on July 27, 2009

Out of interest, how did the Bosnians "get in"?

Bosnia was designated as having Temporary Protected Status for the duration of the conflict. Essentially, it's a broad temporary grant of asylum that puts any other immigration-related decisions on hold. By the time it expired, many would have had the opportunity to convert their status, e.g. by marrying a US citizen.
posted by dhartung at 6:10 PM on July 27, 2009

Some cases from Australia. Tasmania has a recent history of actively seeking refugee resettlements dating back to the post WWII European refugees. Then in the 80s and 90s, Hmong refugees in Australia were allocated to Tasmania for settlement by invitation (they later moved, almost on mass, to Queensland for a warmer climate). Later in the 90s the Tasmanian people specifically sought the refugees from the Kosovo conflict when no one else wanted them, and more recently Somalian refugees have been welcomed into the Tasmanian fold. As a predominately rural and wilderness island with a decreasing population and small cities and towns vulnerable to population changes, refugee resettlement aids Tasmania through the federal government support that arrives with the people. Given housing, health and education opportunities allows the immigrants to quickly become active and productive participants in the community.

There are a number of other rural towns in Australia that have actively sought immigrant settlements to boost population and provide rural labour. This ain't new here. 90% of our entire population is made up of immigrants.
posted by Kerasia at 6:21 PM on July 27, 2009

Since your title asks talks about cultural identity, rather than racial or national idententity, you might want to look at other examples:

* "Hipsters" in Brooklyn, Portland, Seattle, etc.
* "Hippies" and countercultural type in various places.
* Various Christian-identity types to Colorado Springs and elsewhere.
* Skiiers and outdoorsy types in western mining towns.
* Multiple waves of migrations of people from California into other parts of the west, like Denver 30 or so years ago, or Boise and Salt Lake City in the past decade or two, not to mention Seattle and Portland.
* Silicon Valley and Southern California after WW II
* Going further back, Mormons into what was now Utah.

I bring this last one up to help illustrate a point, which is that a lot of these things are only really obvious in hindsight. There is some set of initial conditions that may start things moving, like a displaced population + an initial resettlement effort in a lot of the examples people give above, or a bunch of out of work engineers, etc.

Things unfurl from there, other times they die. I have to wonder if we'd be talking about the Mormons if they'd done their migration a few years earlier or later. A few years earlier, and they may not have survived long enough to take advantage of supplying migrants heading to California in search of gold and the railroad, a few years later and they might have had more competition.

There is a huge amount of research into what it takes to create thriving economic clusters that build on themselves to attract and support more and more populations. Despite this, its still not well understood, and to the extent it is understood, it's much more difficult to create the required conditions than it is to describe them. I think the best strategy is to plant a bunch of seeds and keep watering the ones that grow.

None of this is to discourage you from digging in deeper. It's a fascinating subject, and the sort of thing that is worth working at.
posted by Good Brain at 1:10 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

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