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Why Immigration Reform Matters to Metros

Last week, President Obama delivered a major speech on the need for federal immigration reform. He made his case to Congress, especially Republicans, to step up, put aside political posturing, and have the courage to get the job done rather than continuing to “kick the can down the road.” The federal lawsuit against Arizona’s recently adopted state immigration enforcement law, set to be filed today, may also add impetus for a federal, rather than a piecemeal, solution. It will certainly increase the volume of the debate.

However, as we pointed out here, poll numbers demonstrate substantial public support for practical approaches.

One of those practical approaches would be addressing the impacts of immigration where they occur: metropolitan areas—home to 95 percent of this country’s immigrants. Metro areas are the engines of our national economy and attract workers of varying skill levels from abroad. They also provide the context in which immigrants raise families, commute, worship, start businesses, attend school, consume, and vote. State and local leaders realize this and, in many cases, have stepped in to fill the void left by the lack of federal leadership on immigration. These include both restrictive and progressive measures.

Last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a “Partnership for a New American Economy,” made up of mayors and CEOs that will work together to push Congress on immigration reform. And last month, the U.S. Conference of Mayors issued a resolution supporting comprehensive federal reform that “preempts any state actions to assert authority over federal immigration law” and calls for federal money to be channeled to states and localities that “disproportionately [shoulder] the costs of the current broken immigration system.”

That last phrase is significant. Immigrants are not evenly distributed across this country, and neither are their costs and benefits. Eighty-five percent of immigrants, 32.4 million, live in the 100 largest metropolitan areas. Within metro areas, it’s not just the big cities that are home to immigrants. Sixty percent live in the suburbs, and the proportion of inner suburban residents who are foreign-born matches their concentration in primary cities (21 percent).

But across metro areas, these figures vary widely. There are eight metropolitan areas with over 1 million immigrants, from New York to Chicago, Los Angeles to Dallas-Fort Worth. Most of these metro areas have long histories of receiving immigrants and well-developed infrastructure to help them integrate into their new communities. But smaller metro areas that have experienced a more recent influx of newcomers have often been unprepared for the challenges that can accompany rapid demographic change.

In Cape Coral, Fla., for example, the foreign-born population more than doubled between 2000 and 2008. Nashville’s grew by 83 percent, and the metro is now home to more than 100,000 immigrants. Charlotte’s immigrant population increased by over 70,000 in the eight-year span, and there were 286,000 more immigrants living in the Atlanta metro in 2008 than in 2000.

These—and many other places across the country—could benefit from an impact aid program that should be a part of comprehensive immigration reform. A well-designed federal impact aid program would draw revenue from fees that an earned legalization program provides. The program would allocate the funds to help mitigate the short-term expenses for schooling, emergency healthcare, law enforcement, and other services related to immigration.

This would be especially salient politically, as the conflict and rhetoric in localities around illegal immigration often focuses on how the federal government is not doing its job in keeping out unauthorized immigrants. But it could also be a selling point for comprehensive reform itself. An impact aid program would bolster state and local budgets, appealing now at a time when they are shrinking.  And finally, an impact aid program tied to legalization is necessary if we are serious about U.S. competitiveness: The children of today’s unauthorized immigrants will be part of the next generation’s workforce.

  • Audrey Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. Her areas of expertise include demography, international migration, U.S. immigration policy, and urban and metropolitan change. She has written extensively on U.S. immigration trends, including immigrant integration, undocumented migration, naturalization and citizenship, and the changing racial and ethnic composition of the United States.

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