Pew report: Immigrants give Philly a population boost

Philadelphia — now known, and sometimes targeted, for its immigrant-friendly policies — has reversed a longstanding population decline, thanks to an influx of immigrants.

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Race Street in Philadelphia's Chinatown.

Race Street in Philadelphia's Chinatown. Chinese immigrants make up the single largest group of foreign-born residents in the city. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

In 2016, more immigrants were living in Philadelphia than any time since 1950, according to a new report by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Philadelphia Research Initiative.

Researchers detailed how Philadelphia — now known, and sometimes targeted, for its immigrant-friendly policies — has reversed a longstanding population decline thanks to a relatively recent increase in immigrant arrivals.

“The nation as a whole, the country as a whole, started seeing big increases in immigration starting around in the 70s and 80s… and Philly was not a part of that,” said researcher and report author Tom Ginsberg. “For a couple decades, Philly was tagged as a low-immigration metro area.”

In the 1990s, that started to change. The number of foreign-born residents in the city climbed rapidly between the 2000 and 2016, the most recent year federal data are available, spurring entrepreneurship and reversing years of population decline, according to the report.

“The degree to which immigrants have fueled the city’s population resurgence is striking,” said the report. “From 2000 to 2016, a period in which the city’s population grew for the first time in half a century, the number of foreign-born residents rose by roughly 95,000.”

Those new arrivals more than cancelled out the 44,500 native-born residents who died or moved away during that time.

The report draws from data on foreign-born residents compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which WHYY has reported on before. The new publication includes demographic context about who is coming, and how immigrants interact with the city’s economy. Nearly 20 percent of workers in the city are immigrants, according to the report.

Chinese immigrants make up the single largest group of foreign-born residents, numbering about 22,100; the fastest-growing group of immigrants is from African countries.  First- and second-generation immigrants — those born in another country and their children — make up more than a quarter of Philadelphia residents.

The Philadelphia Research Institute also surveyed 1,601 city residents — immigrants and those born in the U.S. —  to measure their attitudes about immigration.

Not only do immigrants like to move to Philadelphia, but a majority of Philadelphians surveyed said they appreciate the contributions immigrants make to the city. More than two-thirds of survey respondents agreed with the statement that “immigrants bring new people and vitality to Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.”  Meanwhile,  20 percent agreed with the statement that “immigrants create or add to the problems in city neighborhoods.”

Immigration has also contributed to the number of people living in poverty in Philadelphia, with the wages immigrants earned compared to native born residents ranging widely depending on the industry. In manufacturing, immigrants earned less than U.S.-born workers, while immigrants who worked in higher education or hospitals — “eds and meds” — or hospitality made slightly more on average than their native-born counterparts.

“The number of immigrants who live below the federal poverty line rose right along with the general immigrant increase,” said Ginsberg.

The report does not explain how immigrants arrive — whether they entered the country illegally, which kind of visas they hold. It does include previously reported statistics about the number of immigrants living in the area without government authorization: about 50,000 in Philadelphia and 160,000 in the entire 11-county Philadelphia metro area.

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