What St. Louis’ foreign-born population means for the region’s demographic issues
The St. Louis region must find ways to attract more people to the area to avoid some of the most difficult demographic challenges on the horizon.
Regional population growth has stalled in recent years, which doesn’t bode well considering broader trends in the United States, said Ness Sandoval, professor of demography and sociology at St. Louis University.
“We are in the last phase—in the United States—of significant population growth,” he said. “A lot of demographers are predicting, like 2050, the ability to grow is going to be very small if you don’t have certain demographic characteristics built into your demographic profile.”
One of those characteristics is immigration, meaning a region needs to be adept at attracting people born outside of the United States, Sandoval said.
New estimates released this month from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey give a sense of how this population group is behaving in the region.
Overall, the St. Louis region has an estimated 135,239 foreign-born population, which is about 4.8% of the region’s total population. (That figure for the U.S. overall is 13.7%).
The majority of this population lives in St. Louis and St. Charles counties. Between 2012 and 2022 those countries gained nearly 13,000 foreign-born people, while the city of St. Louis shed close to 3,000.
The new estimates go further and have granular information about the foreign-born population in specific cities in the St. Louis region. A local trend Sandoval has been paying attention to is the number of foreign-born people living in west St. Louis County municipalities like Maryland Heights, Chesterfield, Town & Country and others.
“Since the census has been providing the five year estimates, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in the foreign born population in these municipalities,” he said. “To the point where the increase is such a significant number that many of the municipalities are immigrant destinations.”
Sandoval explained that’s when the percent of the population that is immigrant in a specific community is greater than the 13.7% percent in the United States overall.
The new estimates also offer a breakdown of the largest foreign-born groups in the region. St. Louis bucks the norm in most other major metropolitan areas, Sandoval said: people from India are the largest share of foreign-born people in the St. Louis region over people from Mexico.
“It became the largest foreign-born population because of its growth, but also because the Mexican foreign-born population stopped growing,” he said.
The data show the population group from India grew while the other largest foreign-born groups in the St. Louis region remained relatively steady or have been declining. Sandoval argues local trends among this population group are vital to understand for the region’s future.
“If St. Louis doesn’t change demographically, it's going to be in a lot of trouble in 2040,” Sandoval said. “It’s already in trouble, but it’s going to be in even more trouble demographically speaking.”
People who immigrate to the United States may not have St. Louis as their first destination, but the region can be a secondary place that those from foreign countries choose to move to, he added.
“Just like domestic migration, international migrants are on the move as well, looking for opportunities, following their desire for the American dream,” Sandoval said. “We want to make sure that our region is open and encouraging migration from international immigrants.”
Efforts to attract more immigrants
There are a few programs in the St. Louis region to facilitate migration among international arrivals. The International Institute of St. Louis launched initiatives to attract more Afghan and Latino immigrants to the area.
“We’re really just waiting for our first batch of people to start coming,” said Karlos Ramirez, the International Institute’s vice president of Latino outreach.
Ramirez said he’s been traveling to other U.S. cities who have been struggling to accommodate newcomers from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela, countries that are part of a Biden Administration humanitarian parole program.
“Specifically Chicago and Boston are very inclined to bring people to us ASAP,” he said. “Of course when I eventually get to Denver and New York I have no doubt that I’ll have opportunities there as well.”
St. Louis offers a lower cost of living than those cities and also has a comparatively more favorable climate for newcomers from Latin America, Ramirez said. Plus, the region is laying the groundwork to welcome more people from other countries, he added.
Ramirez points to Mayor Tishaura Jones’ move to establish an office for welcoming new Americans, programming from the International Institute, Casa de Saludand the collection of ethnic organizations in the region.
“That really makes it seem that we’re not welcoming at all,” Ramirez said.
That can hurt the region economically as the region’s population continues to decline and many laborers are getting closer to retirement, he said.
“That’s exactly what the Hispanic population brings to the table,” he said. “It’s considerably younger than many of our counterparts.”
St. Louis is also competing against many other U.S. cities for this population group, Sandoval said. Cities like Pittsburgh and others have similar programs to attract immigrants and American citizens, Sandoval said.
“The only way they can grow is through immigration or through domestic migration,” he said.