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Data shows immigrants in the St. Louis region are making an economic impact

Daniel Agbaji (front) and other Claim Academy students study Java at the start of an all-day boot camp class session in 2019.
Kae Petrin
St. Louis Public Radio
Daniel Agbaji, front, and other Claim Academy students study Java at the start of an all-day boot camp class session in 2019. The academy was started by an immigrant entrepreneur in the area.

Although the St. Louis region’s population growth has leveled off over the past decade, there has been a modest increase in the area’s immigrant population. Demographers say this increase is a small but helpful contribution to the economic vibrancy of the region.

Immigrants living in the metropolitan area make up 4.8% of the total population. According to a recent analysis by the American Immigration Council, immigrant households in the area earned $5.9 billion in total income, paid $1.6 billion in taxes and held $4.3 billion in spending power.

Immigrant families play a vital role in the region’s economic success, said Ness Sandoval, professor of demography and sociology at St. Louis University.

“Even though our immigrant population is relatively small — compared to Chicago, Miami or New York — the region is still benefiting from the economic power of this group,” he said. “Imagine what that economic power would be like if the immigrant population was three times as large.”

New U.S. Census Bureau data shows that the region dropped from being the 21st-largest metropolitan area to the 23rd in the year ending July 1, 2023. Both the Charlotte and Orlando metropolitan areas surpassed St. Louis. Last year, the city lost about 3,250 residents. Also, St. Louis County lost over 3,730 people.

Though there is a population loss, many immigrants are finding their way to the area. Today, over 130,000 immigrants call the region home.

Sandoval said the region’s immigrant population needs to be over 10% to be consistent with its peers among the top 20 metropolitan regions.

“Imagine the types of businesses that would be out there generating jobs contributing back to the economy, businesses that would be supporting nonprofits,” he said. “That's not here right now, because we don't have those immigrant businesses, but the ones that are here, we can already see that economic impact.”

Nigerian entrepreneur Ola Ayeni moved from Chicago to St. Louis over a decade ago to open Claim Academy, a software engineering and cybersecurity training school. Arch Grants awarded him $50,000 in 2013 to start the company in St. Louis.

“St. Louis has been positive for me because I remember when I [first] moved here, I got a lot of support,” Ayeni said.

Ayeni was immediately connected to the International Institute and the St. Louis Mosaic Project, as well as other organizations in the area that help immigrants establish themselves in the region.

He credits his success to Arch Grants. Today, the academy employs over 20 people, who include immigrants and native-born citizens. Ayeni said that the company’s finances are consistently in the black and that it brings in millions of dollars a year.

Although many immigrants own profitable businesses in the city, Sandoval said he is seeing more immigrants open businesses in municipalities along the Interstate 270 corridor.

“We are in competition. Many, many cities and regions across the United States want immigrants to move to their region for the reason of the economic activity that they bring to the region,” he said. “Immigrants are more likely to start small businesses compared to American born citizens, and so this is exciting for the business community to see new businesses created.”

Ayeni is also contributing to the region’s economy. Besides the software engineering school, he owns a facial company in Chesterfield and is a real estate investor.

Leaders of St. Louis and St. Louis County want to increase the population to grow the economy. Although the immigrants' economic contributions are a small fraction of the region’s total economy, it is a big fraction, compared to its size of population, Sandoval said.

To keep attracting immigrants, he said St. Louis has to put forth more efforts that will increase immigrants' quality of life.

“Immigrants who are saying, ‘I don't want to live in Houston, I want to find another city, I want to find my American dream,’” Sandoval said. “And so that's where these institutions come into play, because they can now start to advocate and start to promote what the American dream looks like in the St. Louis metropolitan region.”

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.