Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Why do we write so much about immigration? Because it’s immigrants who will build and live in our cities of the future.
As early as next week, the U.S. Supreme Court could come out with a ruling on the legality and scope of President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration in the case of United States v. Texas. If the justices rule in favor of the government, the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) and extended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programs will get a green light. That means four million eligible undocumented immigrants will be allowed to legally stay and work in the U.S temporarily.
There’s no question that the SCOTUS decision is newsworthy, but does it deserve coverage here on CityLab? That’s a polite version of the question we often get—usually through reader comments on stories we’ve published about city-, state-, and national-level immigration policies. Let me explain exactly why immigration is absolutely an urban issue.
“CityLab informs and inspires the people who are creating the cities of the future—and those who want to live there.” That’s our mission statement as a publication. Immigrants—both documented and undocumented—are the people building our cities. They also live in and around them, and keep them up and running. And yet, we don’t quite seem to recognize their value for cities—or why we need to plan cities with them in mind.
Where immigrants have always lived
U.S. metros have always been the first and final destinations for most newcomers. That, by itself, is enough to make immigration an urban issue.
For most of the 20th century, when immigrants arrived in the U.S., they’d enter the country at one of the big “gateway cities”—Ellis Island in New York, for example. Then, they’d funnel into “ethnic enclaves”—neighborhoods with large concentrations of foreign-born people. While that still happens to some extent, the settlement pattern has become much broader. After 1965, immigration policy changed, opening doors to a more diverse flow of immigrants who came legally and illegally. This new wave of immigrants fanned out to metro areas in the South and Southwest, like Charlotte, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia, by the promise of jobs and affordable living.
Over at the Brookings Institution, the researcher Audrey Singer has extensively tracked the shift of immigrant destinations. Her research shows that more than half of all immigrants in the U.S. resided in just five big immigrant hubs in the U.S. between 1930 and 1990. In 2014, she revisited the typology of immigrant gateways and found that 80 percent of U.S. immigrants lived in 57 metros that had “distinctive patterns of historical immigrant settlement.” (To dive deeper into this shift, check out these maps and graphs from Singer’s 2014 presentation.)
Here’s an interactive map by the Migration Policy Center of the metros with the largest immigrant populations between 2010 and 2014:
During this time, another geographical shift was happening: suburbanization. In 1990, roughly equal shares of foreign-born individuals in the U.S. lived in cities compared to the suburbs. By 2010, 51 percent of all immigrants in the U.S. lived in suburbs of U.S. metros. That said, in most of the largest metros (78 out of the 100), immigrants were less likely than the overall population to be in suburbia, per Singer’s 2010 research.
Builders, maintainers, and innovators
As Richard Florida explained recently, immigrants are boosting the metros they live in.
First and foremost, many of them have literally built some of the U.S. cities that are thriving today. Take Charlotte, North Carolina, for example—a city with a skyline that’s less than 25 years old. This was the same period over which its Latino immigrant population saw an incredible growth: from 0.098 percent in 1980 to 13.1 percent in 2014. “Economic growth in Charlotte has been robust, with high demand for positions in industries like construction work,” a University of North Carolina Charlotte report from 2007 reads. This demand, as I’ve written before, was fulfilled in large part by Latino immigrants.
The case of New Orleans is similar: In the years after Hurricane Katrina, Latino laborers flocked to that city for reconstruction jobs. They rebuilt the city, and made it their home.
These examples of immigrants building, repairing, and maintaining U.S. cities aren’t outliers or anomalies. Immigrants have always worked invisible but integral jobs—often, ones that their U.S.-born counterparts won’t do, research shows. Foreign-born workers without college degrees tend to be domestic workers, cooks, construction workers, janitors, gardeners, and carpenters. These are the people maintaining our cities, taking care of our children, and cooking our food.
My colleague Laura Bliss recently wrote about a new push to reexamine the value of such work. She spoke with Lee Vinsel and Andy Russell at the Stevens Institute of Technology, who believe that in an era of crumbling infrastructure, maintenance is even more critical than innovation:
“The vast majority of technologies that surround us and underpin our lives are not innovations,” Vinsel says. “And the vast majority of labor in our culture is not focused on introducing or adopting new things, but on keeping things going.”
But immigrants are building the cities of the future through innovation, too. As of 2016, more than half of the 87 billion-dollar start-ups in the U.S. were started by immigrants, and these created 760 per jobs per company. According to the Wall Street Journal, this “non-partisan study on entrepreneurship gives some credence to the tech industry’s stance that American innovation benefits from robust immigration.”
And yet, we’re not building cities for immigrants
For all of these reasons, we believe it’s immensely important to write about the policies that affect immigrants. Because they are among those who we’re hoping to “inspire and inform.”
But really, the future of immigration should really concern anyone who cares about cities. Whatever side of the immigration debate you’re on, whether or not you believe that the immigrants here illegally should be here or not, the fact is that they already are. And many of them have been assimilating into American society and paying their taxes for decades. It’s their kids and grandkids who are going to be part of the majority of the U.S. population by 2043. They will be the future residents of our future cities.
Many city governments have realized the contributions of this part of the population, and are trying to be more welcoming. But by and large, we haven’t really been designing cities with immigrant communities in mind. Many poor immigrant communities in the U.S. still largely live in segregated neighborhoods with sub-par, poorly equipped schools, bad air, and insufficient clean water. Just like many other communities of color, they’re hit hardest by environmental disasters and transit shut-downs. They’re also harshly policed (which as research has shown is bad for everyone), and subject to housing discrimination, wage theft, and predatory loans (even by ride hailing companies).
All of this is to say that, while these are the people for whom we’re building our cities, so far we’re not doing a very good job.