What does unauthorized immigration and sanctuary mean for Philly’s revival?

Community Contributor Domenic Vitiello makes the case for why immigration of all sorts is important to Philadelphia’s revitalization and what believing in being a sanctuary city means. Vitiello studies immigration and is Associate Professor of City Planning and Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and former board chair of JUNTOS.

Philadelphia’s revitalization is due to and depends upon illegal immigration. Without illegal immigrants, the city’s population might not have reversed its decline and grown over the last decade, or at least would have done so much more slowly. Without illegal immigrants, the construction and restaurant booms enjoyed by Center City and nearby neighborhoods would have been stunted. Without illegal immigrants, the housing markets and commercial corridors of North, South, West, and Northeast Philadelphia would be stagnant to declining.

Planning and economic development professionals now broadly accept the narrative of immigration as a key part of urban revitalization. But many of us fail to recognize the ways illegal immigrants and other working class immigrants boost cities and neighborhoods. We see immigrant doctors and nurses, engineers and computer scientists as assets to our science, technology, and health sectors. We see investments in our international airport and increased flights to London, Frankfurt, Singapore, and Shanghai as ways to attract more “high-skilled” and investor immigrants. We do less to account for the skills and impacts of the construction workers, housekeepers, chefs and busboys, landscapers, nannies, home health aides, and other immigrants whose labor enables the comforts and consumption of those of us with some wealth. We rarely speak of the even less visible warehouse workers who prepare the fruit salads and packaged lunches we buy at convenience stores like Wawa, nor obviously of the sex workers who form part of our downtown entertainment economy. And we fail to realize that not all immigrants who own small businesses are here legally.

In addition to providing basic services, immigrants here without legal status are highly overrepresented in work related directly to urban and suburban revitalization, from rehabbing homes to opening stores to cooking in the city’s destination restaurants – the kinds of work directly contributing to Philadelphia’s revival. The low wages and limited (if any) benefits they receive in this work constitute an “illegal immigration subsidy” that makes all of this more affordable and further enriches those of us who benefit from their services.

Immigrants’ impacts on the city are often most visible at the neighborhood level. By 2015, immigrants made up more than 20 percent of the population in 10 of the 57 zip codes in the city. Immigrant-owned stores with largely immigrant customer bases have helped revive commercial corridors in virtually every section of the city, as immigrants in Philadelphia are more than twice as likely as the native born to own stores. Immigrant communities have repopulated neighborhoods from Mifflin Square in Southeast Philadelphia to Elmwood Park in Southwest, Haddington in West Philly to Lawncrest in the Lower Northeast. Immigrants here illegally have played a large role in all this, helping to stabilize rental markets, reduce crime rates, and fix up, occupy, and maintain homes that were vacant or at risk of falling vacant in these neighborhoods, where white and African American populations have been aging and moving out. Immigrants here illegally have joined local churches, started soccer leagues and festivals in neighborhood parks, and organized with other parents to improve neighborhood public schools.

It’s challenging to accurately estimate how many people are in the U.S. illegally, but by even a conservative measure Philadelphia’s growth depends largely on illegal immigration. The U.S. Census estimates that Philadelphia had 1.57 million residents in 2015, including 199,000 (12.7 percent) who were foreign born. Nationally, the Census estimates roughly 11 million (26 percent) of the 42.2 million immigrants in the United States are “unauthorized”, having entered the country without permission or overstayed a temporary tourist, work, or student visa. Close to half of all immigrants in the U.S. illegally come from Mexico, and the other half come from all over the world, and the pattern in Philadelphia appears similar.

Who qualifies as an “illegal” immigrant and how they acquired that status is far more complicated than most people imagine. Some immigrants, including Haitians, some West Africans, and Central Americans, lose legal status when the White House decides not to renew their Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), as it just did for Liberians granted TPS during the Ebola crisis. Philadelphia is home to the largest Liberian population in the country, close to 5,000 in the city, holding a wide range of visas, citizenship, permanent residency, refugee, and temporary statuses (including DED for Liberians granted TPS during the country’s civil wars in the 1990s).

Assuming about 26 percent of Philadelphia’s immigrants are unauthorized would place the city’s population of people here illegally at a little under 52,000. Subtracting this number from the total population would put the city at 1.52 million, erasing more than half of the city’s population growth since it stopped declining at 1.48 million in 2006. This is substantial, but only part of the picture, and probably too conservative.

Philadelphia’s foreign born population doubled between 1990 and 2015, thanks especially to growing working class communities of Mexican, Chinese, African, Caribbean, and Central American immigrants, groups with modest to overwhelming percentages with unauthorized status. A much larger proportion of these recent immigrants are of prime working and childbearing age than the native-born population. Subtracting the difficult-to-estimate but surely substantial number of children born in Philadelphia to parents without legal status would chip away another part of the city’s population gain over the last decade. In the nation as a whole, more than 6 percent of native-born children have at least one parent who is undocumented, and the age structure and recent births in local immigrants communities suggests it may be higher in Philadelphia.

Even more complex measures suggest that immigrants here illegally help generate jobs and investment in the city and thereby attract new native-born residents. Economists have found that legal and illegal immigrant arrivals create jobs at a ratio of about 1.2 jobs for each new immigrant. These are jobs typically taken by native-born workers. Other social scientists have shown that working class immigration has actually been a precondition for the investments made by more affluent natives and immigrants settling in U.S. cities experiencing revitalization. Indeed, how many middle class professionals would want to live in a city without the services provided by immigrants here illegally?

Like many other cities, Philadelphia has a Sanctuary policy refusing to cooperate with federal authorities in the detention and deportation of illegal immigrants, partly since our mayors and City Council have recognized their contributions to revitalization. In fact, Philadelphia has been a Sanctuary City since the 1980s, when we welcomed Central American asylum seekers fleeing repressive regimes and militias supported by our federal government, which refused to grant them refugee status. Today, Sanctuary Cities and the New Sanctuary Movement, which has lobbied for these policies, stand in opposition to the injustices and impossibilities of a broken federal immigration system. Our national government demands that immigrants here without legal status return to their countries and “get in line” for legal entry when there truly is no actual line through which they can viably get to the U.S. legally for many years, if ever.

From the perspective of urban planners and policy makers, the revitalization that illegal immigrants bring may be a good enough reason for our Sanctuary City policy. But there are many other, more basically human reasons that Philadelphians should find at least as compelling, and hopefully more so. Illegal immigrants have become vital members of our communities, not only for their economic roles but also as contributors to the social and cultural life of our city and its neighborhoods. Illegal immigrants are our neighbors, not only in the local sense but also in deeper, more troubling ways. Our government’s military interventions, trade deals, and political relations with other nations have displaced a large share of our illegal immigrants from their home countries. Calling them “economic migrants” captures only part of their story, ignoring our own complicity in the oppression they have endured in their home countries, in their migration, and in any living illegally in the United States.

The relationships between immigration and cities are up to us to define. We can understand them in terms of alien invasion, the zero-sum game of costs and benefits, or in more constructive terms of revitalization and, more humanely, in terms of sanctuary. This depends on who we want to be as receiving communities. We can decide that they are simply illegal in our nation of laws, and therefore have no place here. Or we can see them as neighbors, friends, colleagues, and positive contributors to our city and communities, worthy of protection and human rights like the rest of us. Ultimately, this is the deeper meaning of Sanctuary – a welcoming of strangers who become friends.


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