Calling All Foreigners: Come Here

Posted: September 15, 2000

In other parts of the country, laws targeting immigrants - throwing up roadblocks, restricting social services and establishing English-only policies in schools - are the order of the day.

In this city, however, the concerns are very different and, at least according to one local pol, foreign immigration could well be the answer to Philadelphia's prayers.

"They're the ones who really go out and struggle and work and really do the jobs a lot of people don't want to do to keep this economy moving forward," said City Councilman Jim Kenney, who yesterday introduced a resolution calling for hearings on ways to increase immigration.

It was immigrants, Kenney said, who built the city in the first place, and now, as the population slides (160,000 have left since 1990), "our neighborhoods will benefit by being repopulated by people who can afford to buy a home."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service reports that Philadelphia is the destination for about 1 percent of foreign immigrants to the United States. That's minuscule compared with cities in New York, New Jersey, California, Texas, Florida and Illinois, which collectively draw 80 percent of immigrants.

Kenney suggests a unified city strategy - one that welcomes immigrants to the community - could help change the tide.

But Douglas Massey, chair of the University of Pennsylvania's sociology department and an expert on cities and immigration, was doubtful that a welcome mat would make much of a difference.

"Philadelphia has kind of been a backwater as far as attracting immigration goes," Massey said. "That's not because they sense that Philadelphia is less tolerant than other cities, but it hasn't been a place of great opportunities."

When manufacturing jobs started leaving the city in the 1950s, immigrants stopped coming, he said.

That may change as the city tries to turn itself around on service industries like hotels and restaurants, which offer jobs that appeal to the low-skilled workers.

Despite recent changes in the demographics of immigration, low-skilled workers still make up the bulk of new arrivals to the country.

Once immigration begins, it perpetuates itself, Massey said. Friends and family members move to be with each other, the community grows and then provides services that further the growth of the community.

But, Massey said, "Philadelphia is never going to be like New York. You can encourage it, but if the economic base isn't there, there's not much that is going to happen."

In general, Philadelphia is friendly to immigrants, said Michael Blum of the Nationalities Service Center, which provides legal, social and educational services to immigrants.

But, he said, "It's something that is still evolving and always needs work. There are some institutions that do more than others."

Send e-mail to einhorn@phillynews.com

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