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America's Leading Immigrant Cities

Trump has it backwards—large immigrant populations boost rather than hurt U.S. metros.

Donald Trump speaks on immigration at a rally in Dallas. (Mike Stone / REUTERS)

Anti-immigrant sentiment and phrases like “we have to build a wall” have at this point become synonymous with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Indeed, the idea of building a massive wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico was just about the only policy idea he mentioned at his Dallas rally last week.

It’s true that immigrants are highly concentrated along the border, including many smaller, hard-hit communities and metros, as the map below shows.

But the reality is that, rather than undermining America’s economy and society, immigrants actually add to both. Immigrants are concentrated in and contribute to the success of many of the most economically vibrant U.S. metros. To help us better understand the actual ways that immigrants are connected to the economy and crime, my team at Martin Prosperity Institute crunched the numbers from the 2011-2013 American Community Survey. (My colleagues Karen King organized the data, Charlotta Mellander ran the correlations, and Isabel Ritchie made the maps. Metro names are shortened and abbreviated in the tables below.)

Top 10 U.S. Metros with the Largest and Smallest Foreign-Born Populations

Metro Foreign-Born Population
Top Ten Largest Share
Miami 38.5%
San Jose 36.8%
Los Angeles 33.8%
San Francisco 29.8%
New York 28.5%
San Diego 23.4%
Houston 22.3%
Washington D.C. 21.9%
Las Vegas 21.9%
Riverside 21.4%
Bottom Ten Smallest Share
Pittsburgh 3.5%
Birmingham 4.0%
Cincinnati 4.1%
St. Louis 4.5%
Memphis 5.0%
Louisville 5.1%
Cleveland 5.7%
Buffalo 5.9%
Indianapolis 6.0%
Virginia Beach 6.2%

The top-ten U.S. metros on the above 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 Trump’s own New York City. The bottom ten feature harder-hit Rustbelt metros like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Buffalo. Overall, immigrants in the U.S. are concentrated in larger, denser and more knowledge-based metros, being correlated with population (.45) and density (.62), high-tech industry (.35), and the creative class (.22). (As usual I note that correlations do not equal causation, but simply point to associations between variables.)

Immigrants are key contributors to innovation and economic growth. A wide body of research has consistently shown that they make up a disproportionate share of leading scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs. The researcher Vivek Wadhwa has found that more than 40 percent of Silicon Valley’s tech companies founded in recent years have at least one immigrant on their founding team. This is nothing new: Immigrants have made up a vital segment of America’s entrepreneurs for quite some time. From Andrew Carnegie to Andy Grove (the former CEO of Intel) to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, immigrant entrepreneurs have long helped to power American innovation and economic growth.

But it’s not just uber-talented immigrants who contribute to the U.S. economy. While anti-immigrant types like to claim that immigrants take American jobs and drive down our wages, the data suggests otherwise. According to Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California, Davis, immigrants are not only just as skilled as native-born Americans, they also specialize in tasks like cooking, driving, and building that native-born Americans may be less inclined to perform. Rather than depressing wages, metros with more foreign-born residents have higher wages overall. Our analysis finds a positive correlation (.48) between the share of foreign-born adults and average wages across U.S. metros.

And despite what ideologues like Trump say, immigrants do not contribute to crime. Instead, they reduce it. Research by Harvard University’s Robert Sampson finds that immigrants act to revitalize local economies and in many cases reduce violence in neighborhoods. A 2009 study in the journal Criminology found increases in immigration to be associated with significant reductions in violent crime across metros. Similarly, our analysis finds metros with higher shares of immigrants to have substantially less property crime, with negative correlations to property crime (-0.41), larceny and theft (-0.46), and burglary (-0.45).  

One reason Republicans may be making these tenuous claims is that metros with high immigrant populations tend to vote Democratic. In the 2012 election, the share of immigrants was positively associated with metros that voted for Obama (.36) and negatively associated with metros that voted for Romney (-0.36).

Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that having too many immigrants isn’t a problem for U.S. metro areas. The real problem may be not having enough of them.

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