Pittsburgh looks to immigrants as economic development tool

     Ammar Nsaif, originally from Iraq, immigrated to Pittsburgh about two years ago. He's an electrical engineer, but he's had trouble finding a job in his field. (Photo courtesy of Ammar Nsaif)

    Ammar Nsaif, originally from Iraq, immigrated to Pittsburgh about two years ago. He's an electrical engineer, but he's had trouble finding a job in his field. (Photo courtesy of Ammar Nsaif)

    Pittsburgh wants to attract 20,000 new residents over the next 10 years, and wants immigrants to be part of the equation.

    When Ammar Nsaif was eight years old, in Iraq, he often thought about his future wife and kids, and about the car, house and business he’d own.  As an adult, he became an electrical engineer and made his 8-year-old self proud. He said he had a reputation with family, friends, and neighbors as a doer, always working and growing his business. “I did very well,” Nsaif said.

    He lost everything when he fled Baghdad suddenly, in 2006. Nsaif, 39, said he received a death threat from terrorists because of his work with an American company. They’d already killed an older brother.

    “I thought, I’ll be back to my country in one or two months, once everything is…safe,” he said.

    Instead, he spent two years in Syria, two years in the Netherlands, and two years in Jordan before he and his family received refugee status and came to Pittsburgh.

    “And that I think will have to be the last station,” he said. “I’m so tired, I’m done.”

    Those words are music to Pittsburgh’s ears. Because Pittsburgh has a plan.

    Welcoming Pittsburgh

    Betty Cruz, who heads Welcoming Pittsburgh, a new initiative to attract and retain newcomers, said the city wants to attract 20,000 new residents over the next 10 years. “And a portion of that, if we’re doing it right, should be immigrants,” Cruz said.

    Studies show immigrants start businesses at a higher rate than non-immigrants and they can raise home values when they move into neighborhoods. Many immigrants are well educated – in Pittsburgh there are four highly skilled immigrants for every low skilled immigrant – which can reflect well on a region trying to attract companies to set up shop. All these things can make immigrants an asset for communities. Audrey Singer, a researcher with the Brookings Institution, says programs like Welcoming Pittsburgh come as a reaction to failed federal immigration reform, but also, because depopulated industrial cities see immigrants as an economic development tool.

    “A lot of these places are looking for two things: economic activity and population. Immigrants and refugees are often looked at as a really dynamic group,” Singer said. 

    Pittsburgh is just the latest Rust Belt city trying to boost its foreign born demographic, seven percent of the population , which is pretty low for an urban area. Philadelphia has a similar program, as do Chicago, St. Louis, Columbus, Dayton. About 40 cities in all work with Welcoming America, the parent organization for many of the local programs. Cities’ priorities and resources differ, but some establish policies to benefit immigrants with and without documents. In Pittsburgh, Cruz said the idea is to be inclusive. “We’re not looking to one country or one skillset, but rather really looking at sending a clear message that we want to build a more welcoming experience for all immigrants and for all Pittsburghers,” Cruz said.   


    Barbara Murock, with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, said Pittsburgh has some catching up to do. The city used to have a significant immigrant population, but Murock said “back in the 80s when immigration was starting to flow into many other large cities, we were having a real economic crisis here with the steel mills going down.” The city emptied out. “So, now that we are starting to have an inward migration we’re really just developing the awareness.” 

    Murock said the region has struggled with providing interpretation services and she sees a need for more career development programs for job seekers at all levels. Pittsburgh’s elevated rate of high-skilled immigrants means an additional service may be necessary: help transferring their degrees and certifications.

    “It’s kind of like a maze, it’s a difficult process to get through,” Murock said.

    About 30,000 high-skilled immigrants are un- or under-employed in Pennsylvania. Nsaif currently works as a caregiver, making $1,400 a month for a family of five.

    Mentors, too, would help, said Murock. A refugee career mentoring program her department started was not able to attract volunteers to sustain it. Another issue is services are currently provided by various organizations throughout the region, instead of under one umbrella organization, which can make it difficult for people to navigate .   

    And some see Pittsburgh as kind of parochial, not necessarily open to outsiders. Melanie Herrington, Present and CEO of Vibrant Pittsburgh, said “networks in the city are very tight and can be very difficult for people to break into” and “being open to difference takes a minute. You know, it sometimes is a muscle that you have to work.”   

    Welcoming Pittsburgh hopes to change all that, by opening government and coordinating various agencies’ efforts.  Brookings’ Singer said it’s too soon to tell if it’s working in other cities, but what some call “deliberate welcoming” does seem to make a difference in terms of how people view a place.

    However, ultimately, for immigrants, it comes down to opportunity.  

    “It’s first the market doing its job and then the social networks kick in. Those welcoming initiatives are enhancements to these things that are already happening,” Singer said.

    Herrington said that’s something Pittsburgh has going for it. “Our good news is our growing job opportunities and the fact that they’re growing in some really high demand areas,” she said.    

    As for Nsaif, he’s staying positive. He’s already bought a house. He’s participating in a new program for high-skilled immigrants and taking English classes. He likes Pittsburgh, says there’s magic in the city. He said he has “big dreams. I want to make [a] personal business.”

    That’s very good news for the comeback city.

    Welcoming Pittsburgh will come out with a plan in the spring.  


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