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The High Cost of Closed Borders

Where immigrant populations live tells us a lot about how they improve the U.S. economy.

A mural at Los Galanes restaurant is seen in the Mexican Town district in Detroit. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Despite what some pundits predicted, being elected President has not made Donald Trump fundamentally change his message on immigration: Just last week, the president-elect was pushing Congress to pay for his border wall with Mexico, which could cost (U.S., not Mexican) taxpayers as much as $10 billion.

All this is an attempt to bolster his populist message—but it would be a failing economic policy. The reality is that immigration is a positive force for economic growth in the United States.

That’s the main takeaway from three recent studies that reveal more about the geography of immigration and the effects of immigrants on America’s neighborhoods and cities.

An urban economic force

A recent study by researchers at the U.S. Census Bureau’s Foreign-Born Population Research Branch uses data from the American Community Survey to track the location of immigrants across America’s urban and rural areas. Today, 13.2 percent of the population is made up of immigrants. But immigrants are massively concentrated in urban areas.

Percentage of foreign born residents in mostly urban counties, as compared to mostly rural counties. (US Census Bureau Population Division)  

There are especially high concentrations of immigrants in large urban counties across the Boston-New York-Washington Corridor, Miami, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco as well as border areas in California and Texas. More than half the population (51.6 percent) of Miami-Dade County is foreign born. More interestingly, there are high concentrations of immigrants in rural counties in Texas, Idaho, North Carolina, and Kansas.

Immigrants make up 14.8 percent of the population in counties that are mostly urban—that is, those that are more than 50 percent urban, compared to just 2.9 percent of the population in mostly rural counties (those that are 50 to 99 percent rural) and 2.3 percent in completely rural counties. A big trend, of course, is that immigrants tend to head for the suburbs of urban areas, as much or more so as to the inner cities.

Not surprisingly, America’s major immigrant destinations voted against Trump, while his support was concentrated in the places that have the smallest number of immigrants. Indeed, my own analysis of states and metros finds immigration to be highly negatively correlated with Trump votes.

The rise of global immigrant neighborhoods

Immigrants are making the nation as a whole more diverse, according to a study published in the journal Demography by sociologists Wenquan Zhang and John Logan. Their research examines the role and extent of highly diverse “global” immigrant enclaves—neighborhoods which are populated by diverse multiethnic and multiracial residents. The study tracks this at the neighborhood or Census Tract level for 342 metropolitan areas between 1980 and 2000.

Global neighborhoods in 1980 and 2010 (Zhang and Logan)

The maps above show the geographic location of these various types of immigrant enclaves across the United States in 1980 and 2010. Dark green represents predominately white residents, light green represents a mix of white and black residents, orange represents immigrant minority metropolitan areas with large populations of Hispanic and/or Asian populations but with fewer blacks, and the red represents multi-ethnic neighborhoods.

Note the concentration of multiethnic enclaves across the Boston-New York-Washington Corridor, Southern Florida, Chicago, and parts of Texas; Hispanic and Asian enclaves in California and the Pacific Northwest. White enclaves are mainly in the Rust Belt, which has seen lower rates of recent immigration; white-black enclaves are mainly in the South.

Here is a chart* of the racial demographic proportions of how those different metro area categories have changed from 1980 to 2010.

The study highlights the rapid rise of those more diverse multiethnic neighborhoods. The most common neighborhoods are the ones “where whites and blacks live alongside Hispanics or Asians or both,” according to the study. Virtually all across the country, Hispanic and Asian populations are growing, as the white population shrinks.

How immigrants drive neighborhood growth

But where and why are those enclaves emerging? What attracts different immigrant groups to different kinds of areas and neighborhoods? And what is the effect of these immigrants on the neighborhoods they settle in?

Those are the questions addressed in a study by Matt Ruther, Rebbeca Tesfai, and Janice Madden that examines the role and effects of different kinds of immigrant groups across neighborhoods in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. In many cities, the study finds, immigration helps drive population growth: For 28 out of the top 100 metros, immigration migration is a bigger factor in population growth than natural population increase or domestic migration. Despite the claims made by Trump and others about large influxes of uneducated, undocumented immigrants, today’s immigrants tend to be more highly educated and have higher incomes.

The study focuses on the location patterns of immigrants of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Black and Hispanic immigrants tend to move toward existing immigrant populations—but they are also more likely to concentrate in neighborhoods with lower rates of unemployment. On the other hand, Asian and white (non-Hispanic) immigrants tend to migrate based on their class position and socioeconomic status. They are more likely to live in higher income neighborhoods and in the suburbs. Asian immigrants, for example, are less likely to live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of first-generation Hispanic immigrants, but they are not less likely to live in areas with more-affluent, better-educated second-generation Hispanics.

In terms of their economic impacts, income growth is lower in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of black, Hispanic, or Asian immigrants. These areas also tend to offer lower housing prices. Income growth is higher in neighborhoods with greater concentrations of immigrants from Europe, Canada, and the Middle East. Immigration, as with most other aspects of life in America, is overlaid by the basic divides of class and race.

***

Trump and his supporters typically frame the question of immigration as: “Immigrants are taking something away from Americans.” They could not be more wrong.

The reality is that immigration is key to the nation’s growth. Instead of taking jobs away from Americans, immigrants bring different skills to the table that complement those of American workers and help drive economies. Lower-skilled immigrants do the kind of low-paying, dirty, and dangerous work that American workers don’t want to do, while high-skill immigrants help power America’s innovative high-tech industries. Immigrants have been integrally involved in anywhere from a third to a half of high-flying high-tech startup companies.

Back in 2015, I traced the geography of immigration for CityLab and found that the top ten large metros for immigrants list reads like a who’s who of America’s most economically vibrant and dynamic metros: Miami, San Jose (the heart of Silicon Valley), Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Houston (America’s energy capital), Washington, D.C., and New York City. The bottom ten feature harder-hit Rust Belt metros like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Buffalo. Metros with higher levels of immigrants have higher concentrations of high-tech industry, more startups, and higher incomes and wages overall.

As time goes on, immigration is making America a more multiethnic nation. While this is most noticeable in its major cities and large metros, it is happening across the country. As cities prepare to defend immigrants and fight Trump’s administration over federal funding for sanctuary cities, it’s worth remembering how crucial America’s immigrants and immigrant enclaves are to its dynamism and economic growth. Threats to curtail immigration and build a border wall may win points with Trump’s white working-class voters, but they will only hurt America’s economy as a whole.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story had a number error that altered the demographic proportions for the "White and Black" neighborhoods in 1980.

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