Pew State of the City: Immigrants make up the largest percentage of Philly’s population since the 1940s, report finds

As a “reemerging gateway,” immigrants have driven Philadelphia’s overall population growth in recent decades.

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Shown is the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Philadelphia skyline as seen from the Cramer Hill Waterfront Park in Camden, N.J., Wednesday, April 20, 2022.

Shown is the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Philadelphia skyline as seen from the Cramer Hill Waterfront Park in Camden, N.J., Wednesday, April 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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A new report finds that immigrants now make up the largest percent of Philadelphia’s population since the 1940s.

According to Pew Charitable Trusts’ State of the City released Thursday, 15.7% of Philadelphians said they were born outside the U.S. That’s higher than the national percentage of 13.9%.

“Philadelphia is a reemerging gateway,” said Katie Martin, project director of Pew’s Philadelphia Research and Policy Initiative and the project’s lead researcher.

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Martin said immigrants have driven Philadelphia’s overall population growth in recent decades, from 1,493,802 to more than 1,600,000 in 2020, followed by a dip to 1,550,000 in 2023.

Chart from Pew report
(The Pew Charitable Trusts)

“The Philadelphia population gain over these last 15 years has really been because people are moving to Philadelphia, either from foreign countries or moving to the United States and then moving to Philadelphia,” she said.

Martin said the growth of the city’s immigrant population has also impacted Philadelphia’s economy and increased racial and ethnic diversity.

“More vibrancy in the city, more people moving in, new businesses starting, all of that is really due to the increase in the foreign-born population during that period,” she said.

Chart from Pew report
(The Pew Charitable Trusts)

Having accurate, up-to-date data is “of critical importance” for understanding and serving the city’s immigrant communities, said Amy Eusebio, executive director of Philadelphia’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

“The data is everything, it really tells the story,” she said. “I know, because I’m the daughter of immigrants, that our communities are key to the vitality and, if you will, rebirth of the city.”

Eusebio, who was re-appointed to the role this week by Mayor Cherelle Parker, is the first person to head the Office of Immigrant Affairs since it became a permanent part of city government in 2019. Policies the city has implemented to support immigrant communities have helped increase the city’s immigrant population, she noted.

“Some of our policies like things around language access initiatives, such as the municipal ID program that provides photo identification for all Philadelphia residents, and other initiatives, too, our health centers are open to people regardless of status …There’s a number of different initiatives that I think make Philadelphia an attractive place to live for immigrants. And I think the policies do make a difference,” she said.

The importance of the growth of Philly’s immigrant communities has long been clear to Anuj Gupta, president and CEO of The Welcoming Center, an organization that promotes economic growth through immigrant integration.

From 2000-2001, Gupta, a public policy graduate student at the time, researched and wrote a report on how immigrants could reverse the population decline in Philadelphia and revitalize the city. Anne O’Callaghan, an immigrant from Ireland, used the report as a basis for founding The Welcoming Center.

Gupta said the “astronomical” rise in the city’s immigrant population from around 6% in 2000 to nearly 16% today is “a testament to the intentional pivot that we have made as a city.”

“It’s a combination of mayors and City Council members, of leaders in the private sector and the work of organizations like the Welcoming Center, we have created an ecosystem where immigrants feel like there is opportunity and there’s support. And as a consequence, more are coming,” he said.

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One such program that supports immigrants in starting their lives in the city is the Welcoming Center’s 12-week business-planning program.

Sulay Sosa Vázquez, who came to Philadelphia in 2003 from Puebla, Mexico, graduated from the program this week. She wants to open “Antojitos Mexicanos Vázquez,” a food truck featuring Mexican snacks. She said she’s encouraging other immigrants she knows to participate in the program, and would like to see more resources and similar programs that support immigrants.

She said fear, especially for immigrants without a regularized immigration status, is the biggest barrier to accessing resources, even more so than language barriers.

“Quiero que más familias se beneficien de los programas que hay porque hay mucha ayuda. En Filadelfia hay mucha ayuda”, dijo Sosa Vázquez. “A veces esa información no llega a las personas”.

“I want more families to benefit from the programs that exist because there’s a lot of help. In Philadelphia there’s a lot of help,” Sosa Vázquez said. “Sometimes that information doesn’t reach people.”

Eusebio and Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS PA, which supports low-income immigrants with legal and social services, said recent global crises in Haiti, Afghanistan and Ukraine have fueled immigrant population growth in the city and state in the past several years.

Miller-Wilson said up-to-date data on Philadelphia’s immigrant communities is important for the city and immigrant-serving organizations to be able to expand and improve resources and legal support for newly-arrived immigrants and refugees from conflict and climate crises.

“We’ve all been working together as hard as we can to try to meet the needs. That said, I will not pretend that we’re meeting the need … HIAS PA, of all the agencies, is the largest legal services agency, and we’re completely at capacity.”

Support for immigrants in Philadelphia, throughout the commonwealth, and in the U.S. as a whole benefits everyone, she said.

“Immigrants are our savior. It’s not just nice that we have a diverse population, it’s we have a desperate need. But for immigrants, we have a demographic, a population decrease. That is significant. And then it’s causing staffing crises in every single industry,” she said. “So for our city and for our state, for our economy, we desperately need authorized immigrants, which we can get if we have the legal services to get them the authorization.”

Gupta, of the Welcoming Center, said it’s an ongoing process to ensure Philadelphia is a destination for immigrants.

“We have to continue to be vigilant that we are making those investments. We’re making those policy choices. And we’re continuing to move the needle forward.”

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