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St. Louis Looks To Immigrants To Bolster Region

(courtesy St. Louis Mosaic Project)

St. Louis city and county lost population in the 2010 census which created big concerns about the region’s future.

In reaction, the area's civic leaders quickly turned their attention to immigrants.

Foreign born residents make up less than 5 percent of the metropolitan area, far below most other major U.S. cities.

The St. Louis Mosaic Project came together this last year to address the issue.

St. Louis Public Radio and The Beacon’s Maria Altman spoke with Betsy Cohen, the Mosaic's project director.

St. Louis Looks To Immigrants To Bolster Region

The U.S. House has yet to pass immigration reform. Is it difficult to start a program like Mosaic with this level of uncertainty?

The certainty is that we need to attract people to our region. We will be looking to attract people who are foreign born from throughout the U.S. to come to St. Louis, regardless of what happens with national legislation. But we do expect parts of national legislation to pass and we want to be prepared.

You’re trying to attract immigrants not only from foreign countries, but also immigrants who already live in the U.S.?

We definitely want to attract people who are foreign-born, who live throughout the United States who may come here for new opportunities with Monsanto as they open a new building, or for roles with our universities, or because families and friends have been successful with their businesses here.

We saw that with the Bosnians when they came here. They recruited their family and friends to St. Louis from around the United States and that’s how that population grew. We hope that’s part of the growth path through our other ethnic groups here now.

Credit (courtesy of St. Louis Mosaic)
Betsy Cohen, project director of St. Louis Mosaic Project.

You have an ambassador portion of this project?

As people began to ask me what they could do to help, I created the Mosaic Ambassadors.  This group is asked to invite a foreign-born person to dinner or for coffee to build cultural bridges. We actually have 300 people who’ve signed on now. Many other regions are looking at this as a unique way to get civic engagement and have people in the community embrace the idea that, one-to-one, we have to build bridges and be welcoming.

How will you know this has worked? What are the benchmarks going to be?

The main benchmark is that by 2020, St. Louis will have the fastest foreign-born growth rate of any of the major metropolitan areas. Right now we’re 19th in terms of metropolitan size, but we’re 43rd in terms of the number of foreign-born we have.  Also there’s an annual estimate made of foreign born from other documentation.

Then there will be sub-metrics in terms of outreach; people; how many groups are engaged through professional connector program; jobs that are found; people who are moving here; careers paths that are made.

I know it’s been less than a year, but have you seen any movement?

The estimates are slightly up. We really have to build momentum and awareness for a period of time. There will be more involvement and engagement of different groups in town as they see the fruits of working together. And more immigrants will tell their family and friends that if they come here, they’ll have better career and business opportunities.  

Follow Maria Altman on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.