The 10 Traits of Globally Fluent Metropolitan Areas: Immigration, Opportunity, and Appeal

Each week this summer a Brookings expert will post on one of the 10 traits of globally fluent metro areas. These 10 traits have proven to be particularly strong determinants of a metro area’s ability to succeed in global markets, manage the negative consequences of globalization, and better secure its desired economic future. This blog post represents trait 6 – Opportunity and Appeal to the World.

The forces of globalization have ushered in chaotic change to metro areas around the world. It is becoming more and more difficult for a place to remain isolated from the costs and benefits of this new global order. Cities and their surrounding suburbs have no choice but to manage globalization or be managed by it. 

The Great Recession made clear that a narrow focus on domestic markets no longer works; to succeed economically, U.S. metro areas must engage globally. Global fluency allows a metropolitan area to maximize the benefits of globalization and minimize the negative consequences. The more globally fluent a metro area is, the smoother its trajectory into the globalized economy that is increasingly important for success and sustainability.

In their recent report, our colleagues Brad McDearman, Greg Clark, and Joseph Parilla outline 10 traits of globally fluent metro areas, including globally focused leadership, economic specialization, adaptability, connectivity, and global identity. But you cannot become globally fluent without speaking a foreign language. And this is where the global movement of people comes in.

The sixth trait, “opportunity and appeal to the world,” describes metro areas that “serve as magnets to attract global investment, new businesses, skilled workers, entrepreneurs, immigrants, foreign students, tourists, and/or business travelers from around the world.” Immigration is a healthy sign that a region is viewed as appealing and opportunity rich. 

Immigrants, by definition, are opportunists. Whether immigrants have a Ph.D. or haven’t finished high school, they choose their destination based on information about the opportunities for economic mobility, quality of life, and affinity to others living there. Immigrants’ presence itself increases a place’s global fluency, but immigrants also pass on valuable information to potential migrants that can serve to attract or deter them from following in their footsteps. Like beacons, immigrants transmit messages to their networks abroad and around the country. Word gets out that a place that welcomes immigrants and their families, allows businesses and workers to flourish, and creates an inclusive atmosphere presents unmistakable opportunities. 

That immigrants know where to go within the United States is not an accident. Where immigrants choose to reside is determined by a combination of labor market forces and immigrant networks. Some of the fastest growing immigrant gateways in the past 20 years, such as Atlanta and Washington, D.C., were those experiencing swift job growth, and they attracted job seekers and corporations in fields such as information technology, life sciences, and other knowledge-based industries. As a consequence, high-skilled immigrants were in demand, along with their native-born counterparts, and these metros experienced high population growth. Lower-skilled immigrants also were drawn to fast-growing regional economies for the opportunities in construction, expanding healthcare sector jobs, and other lower-wage service occupations. 

Due to their diverse and economically active immigrant communities, many metro areas have been continuously “multilingual” for decades. In New York City, for example, the Economic Development Corporation launched the Immigrant Bridge Program, which works to reduce barriers for underemployed internationally-educated immigrants in fields such as engineering, healthcare, and finance, through specialized training and referrals. The program also offers low-interest microloans for immigrants to invest in their retraining and up-skilling. 

The Washington state Integrated Basic Education Skills Training Program, works across 34 community and technical colleges to advance low-skilled immigrants into careers at a faster pace than traditional programs by combining language training and adult basic education in high-demand occupations. And across 10 U.S. metropolitan areas, the Welcome Back Initiative works with high-skilled internationally trained immigrants in the healthcare sector to get credentials and licenses to practice and to make connections to linguistically and culturally compatible communities in need of healthcare professionals.

Metro areas without a long history of immigration face greater challenges, but it’s never too late to learn a foreign language, and they can take lessons from their more globally fluent peers.  

Here’s one reason why it’s worth the effort: Immigration is good for business. Small business ownership has risen by 1.8 million over the past 20 years, and immigrant-owned businesses account for 30 percent of the growth, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute of New York. Nearly half of small businesses in metropolitan Miami and Los Angeles are immigrant-owned, which is not surprising given the size of their immigrant populations. Even in metropolitan Detroit, Philadelphia and Baltimore, immigrant-owned small businesses are over-represented given the share of the population that was born outside the United States.  Furthermore, firms—immigrant-owned or not—that cater to immigrants may choose to locate in a metro area with a high number or concentration of foreign-born residents.   

Notwithstanding the federal immigration reform imbroglio, the United States should consider itself fortunate that, despite its dysfunctional immigration system, it still attracts the largest number of immigrants in the world. And for metro areas that have been successful in attracting immigrants, they are a boon for regional economies.

Learning a foreign language is never quick or easy, but becoming globally fluent is worth the effort.