The areas of natural decrease stretch from industrial areas near Pittsburgh and Cleveland to the vineyards outside San Francisco to the rural areas of east Texas and the Great Plains. A common theme is a waning local economy, such as farming, mining or industrial areas. They also include some retirement communities in Florida, although many are cushioned by a steady flow of new retirees each year.
Over the last few years, increased immigration is the suggested cure for demographic decline. The reasoning is sound enough. But can immigrants save Rust Belt cities such as Detroit? Trends in urban geography suggest no, they won't.
Immigrants impact, sometimes more dramatically than the act of moving into the city, urban population via natural increase. Higher birth rates swell the ranks of children in local schools. As long as these kids don't leave, the future looks bright. But thanks to demographic convergence, immigrants populations have less children as they become better educated and more prosperous. Add to that improving national economies in the sending countries (e.g. Mexico) and the floundering US economy, there is less incentive to come here in the first place. Secondary domestic migration from gateway cities such as New York are more likely prospects for gains than direct immigration.
Flagging birth rates aren't the biggest drag on the Rust Belt immigration policy suggestion. A major shift in urban geography is much more vexing. Not-so-Rust-Belt Baltimore is growing:
Downtown Baltimore’s 130 percent population growth since 2000 has included few immigrants. While Southeastern Baltimore has received an influx of immigrants — helping the city post its first population gain in six decades — few recent downtown residents have moved in from outside the U.S.
Kirby Fowler, president of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc., said Thursday at the nonprofit’s annual State of Downtown meeting he’s been waiting for news of new population growth “for a very, very long time.”
“A lot of credit goes to the city’s ability to attract immigrants, particularly from Central and South America,” Fowler said. “But the trend in downtown has been more about in-migration than immigration. While downtown residents are ethnically and racially diverse, the data indicate that the growth of these residents will continue for the foreseeable future.”
Downtown Baltimore is 48 percent white, 41 percent black, 6.5 percent Asian and 4 percent Hispanic, according to Downtown Partnership’s annual report.
Like Cleveland, Baltimore's downtown is finally showing signs of residential rebound. I'd bet a little digging into ironic demographics of the inner ring would reveal a full-fledged back-to-the city migration. Across the country, urban cores are making a comeback. Immigrants aren't driving the change. College-educated young adults are responsible. It's gentrification. They are displacing immigrants, not joining the ranks.
Both Baltimore and Cleveland are undergoing this transformation. Domestic, not international, migration is the flow to encourage. Immigration policy is beyond the purview of cities. All mayors can do is lobby and make noise about being more welcoming.
If there is a foreign-born boom, it is increasingly found in the inner-ring suburbs as rents in center city become too dear. Forget ghettos such as Chinatown and Little Italy. Strip malls are where you get the good eats.
The new urban ghettos are full of repats, return migrants. They eschew the suburban neighborhoods where they grew up for the downtown pulse that reminds them of the good times they had in Big City. They are riding the wave of globalization that is reshaping the Rust Belt. Post-Great Recession, the immigration strategy doesn't make much sense. Immigrants are heading home, too. You want diversity? There's plenty to be had already present in these United States.