For more than a decade, the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanianshas been helping immigrants better navigate the streets and ways of Philadelphia. Now, it has more than just anecdotal evidence as to why the city has regained its status as a “gateway city” for new Americans – a place where immigrants opt to come to live and stay.
Choosing Philadelphia, a 44-page report, unpacks the why and how of a trend that has led to the city’s population rebounding after decades of decline. Drawing immigrants has plumped the population by some 113,000 new residents, according to the latest figures. The tally is part of a concerted plan outlined by Mayor Michael A. Nutter when he first assumed office. Variations on the theme are emerging nationwide, with places such as St. Louis and Detroit drawing headlines for their tactics, if not the overall goal.
“There has been a big trend in the last three years, where 30 states or cities have launched some talent attraction initiative,” said Amanda Bergson-Shilock, director of outreach and program evaluation at the Welcoming Center, who led the study. “Philadelphia has been on the cutting edge, but suddenly everyone is jumping on this bandwagon. But there is an astonishing lack of data as to what attracts people to an area.”
While the Welcoming Center presents just a snapshot – limited resources prevented a more expansive, statistical study – what’s uncovered offers insights as to why Philadelphia has been a magnet for immigrants. Among the key findings:
- Economics rule: Warm and fuzzy feelings take a far backseat to one of the major reasons for heading this way – the relative speed of finding work. While reporting Philly natives aren’t necessarily the politest, they will engage their foreign-born neighbors and leave them alone.
- Diversity matters: The many enclaves of foreign-born and non-white residents living in neighborhoods across the city and ability to connect with worshippers of the same faith lent it an air of welcome. That doesn’t mean that there are not the occasional cultural clashes among native-born residents, but just the numbers of fellow foreign-born individuals was seen as encouraging.
- Global connectivity, on a higher scale: The number and quality of higher education institutions influenced decisions to move here, not just for degrees or work, but also for helping to foster a critical mass of global-minded people and opportunities to collaborate with them.
- Discrimination too familiar: Whereas Latino and Caribbean immigrants hailed the city as a great place to find a good job, they also were likely to report instances of racial or ethnic discrimination – at rates higher than their European, African and Asian-born counterparts.
- Kids love the PHL: Some 2 in 3 millennials surveyed – young people born between 1980 and 2000 – who came to the United States not only landed in Philadelphia, but said it was their first destination of choice. Among older immigrants, 1 in 2 said Philadelphia was their first destination of choice.
- Word-of-mouth matters: There’s no coincidence that people tend to come here via networks – a friend or family member settles in, finds success and then spreads the good word, and so on.
- Philly is infectious: After living here for a while, foreign-born residents adopt and demonstrate über-loyal attachments to their neighborhoods, almost rivaling their native-born neighbors. And if the initial transition goes well, they are about 90 percent certain to stay in the city.
A few common myths also were dispelled. Higher-educated, wealthier immigrants didn’t automatically flock to the suburbs. Nor were people seeking to abandon the city because of troubling conditions engulfing the School District of Philadelphia.
Researchers sampled foreign-born residents living throughout Philadelphia and its surrounding four counties, representing some 74 nations of origin and Puerto Rico.
The report cuts across educational and economic lines, among urban and suburban dwellers, and across a swath of people born outside of the United States who now call Philadelphia home. The only exception is that it does not include significant input from the notable Indian American enclave of Montgomery County, where responses were not as robust, Bergson-Shilock said.
The center unveiled the new study to a roomful of civic, corporate, educational and foundation leaders, pairing the overview with a panel discussion on its implications during a breakfast meeting at Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP.
The panel included Nilda Iris Ruiz, president and CEO of APM Philadelphia, Anatoli W. Murha, business development and marketing manager for Ukranian Selfreliance Federal Credit Union and Patience Lehrman of Temple University. Al Dia NewsMedia co-sponsored the event.
Bergson-Shilock said the newly compiled data could help stimulate conversations and thoughtful policy decisions. Operating without that information easily can result – and has resulted – in a host of bad outcomes, ranging from wasted tax dollars to resentment among current and native-born residents.
The idea behind this study is to focus on first-hand information to better plan, invest and replicate success, she said.
“There has definitely been some magic-bullet thinking going on in terms of immigration initiatives,” Bergson-Shilock said. “But in this report we try to be very clear about three things. Nothing is a panacea. If you don’t do your outreach strategy wisely, it can end up backfiring. And any strategy has to be about the people living there as well as those you’re looking to attract.”