November 23, 2015 | By Sara McElmurry

Immigration—on the Banks of the Mississippi

<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/smcgee/308654942/" target="_blank">Flickr/smcgee</a>

I recently visited a Midwestern community where 40 languages are spoken in the public schools, immigrants were behind 100 percent of the population growth over the last decade, and a local mayor has recently spoken out for immigrant and refugee rights. 

The community wasn’t Chicago, Minneapolis, or St. Louis—big cities with long histories as global entry points for immigrants.

Rather, it was the Quad Cities, with a population of 380,000 that straddles both sides of the Mississippi.

The communities of Davenport, Bettendorf, Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline (yes, there are actually five Quad Cities), have faded a bit since the boom days of river-based industry and manufacturing—and they’ve also gotten a little grayer, given that nearly a third of the population is age 55-plus. The metro area, like so many in the stagnating Midwest, would have registered a population loss at the 2010 Census, had it not been for the arrival of 3,000-plus immigrants.

Immigration once was associated only with large metropolitan gateways. But the effects of global migration and demographic change are now a reality—and opportunity—in smaller, previously homogenous communities across the country.

Local business communities like my host, the 200-member-strong Greater Quad Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GQCHCC), realize that revitalizing their economies means maximizing the contributions of all of residents, regardless of their country of origin. They recognize that foreign-born workers—most of whom are working age—are one antidote to their aging local labor force. They embrace demographic change and celebrate the contributions of the region’s growing Latino population. And they want to understand how the outdated federal immigration system limits their local opportunity, and what they can do about it.

Coming from sectors that increasingly depend on immigrant labor, members of the GQCHCC shared observations about how visa shortages, red tape, and outdated quotas limited their ability to hire the workers they urgently need to fill their ranks:
  • Local agriculture employs thousands in crop production and corporate agribusiness alike—John Deere’s World Headquarters is just blocks away from chamber offices—but still faces gaps of up to 30 percent in its labor supply.
  • Health care depends on immigrant workers in jobs ranging from home care aids to physicians and surgeons. It also faces acute shortages in the Quad Cities as native-born medical students flock to practice in coastal cities.
  • Local colleges bring thousands of bright international students to the Quad Cities each year—yet the region has no way to retain these highly-educated graduates once they finish their studies.
  • Immigrant entrepreneurs have revitalized the Quad Cities’ main streets with family-owned shops and restaurants—but the lack of a startup visa limits broader opportunity for would-be business owners.
With new speaker of the house Paul Ryan confirming that his chamber won’t take up immigration reform until at least 2017, the Midwest call to action around immigration is even more urgent today than when the Chicago Council on Global Affairs convened a regional task force to build consensus on the issue nearly three years ago.

Today, Midwestern leaders are filling the gap created by the federal stalemate on this issue, launching city, state, and metro-level welcoming initiatives in communities from Detroit to Dayton to Dodge City. These programs attract newcomers, support immigrant entrepreneurs, and celebrate cultural diversity.

The GQCHCC convening was an important step in bringing Midwestern momentum around this issue to the Quad Cities. If the community can fully maximize the opportunity presented by 3,000 new residents and 40 world languages, it can set the bar for what “immigrant friendly” should look like in the Heartland.
 

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