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Regional group heads to Washington to push for more immigrants

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 27, 2013 -  The St. Louis region’s lack of immigrants has hurt its economy and its growth – and its civic leaders are out to change the trend.

As those involved see it, Congress should use that experience and insight as examples of how to proceed – or not -- when it crafts a new immigration policy.

In essence, that’s part of the message carried by a contingent of local government and business leaders and immigration expert, who have traveled to Washington to meet Wednesday with some members of the region’s congressional delegation.

The group – officially known as the St. Louis immigration and innovation steering committee -- includes Denny Coleman, president of the St. Louis County Economic Council; Rodney Crim, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corp.; Anna Crosslin, president of the International Institute of Metropolitan St. Louis;  and Timothy J. Nowak, executive director of the region’s World Trade Center.

Most of Wednesday will be spent in meetings with U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., as well as members of the U.S. House – including Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and Bill Enyart, D-Belleville.

“We just want to brief our delegation on what we’re doing here and why we’re doing it,” Nowak said Tuesday, before leaving town.  “And why we see this as an economic imperative for the region.”

The steering committee plans to brief members of Congress and their staffs on the study it commissioned last year by St. Louis University professor Jack Strauss, who looked at the economic impact of immigration in the St. Louis area.

What Strauss found gave some civic leaders pause.  “The results are eye-opening,” Nowak said. “About 4.5 percent of our population is foreign-born. That’s 4 to 5 times smaller than other communities in the top 20 metropolitan areas.”

The region’s lack of immigrants, the study concluded, contributes to some of the region’s economic challenges, from job growth to wages and housing.

The upshot, said Nowak, is that attracting, supporting and retaining immigrants are “critical for St. Louis" and "critical for the region to be competitive.”

He also praised St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley for being “the galvanizing force” to set up the steering committee, conduct the study and respond to its insights and recommendations.

The panel’s mission in Washington is “to provide some recommendations on what we as a community should be doing,” Nowak said. “Our main goal is to share with our delegation the background of this study, what this study told us, and some insight on what we’re doing now.”

On Thursday, the steering committee will meet up with a Chicago counterpart – the Chicago Council on Global Affairs – which will be releasing its own study on immigration. The title: “What the Midwest Needs from Immigration Reform.”

Joe Reagan, president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber (and a member of the steering committee), will participate in a panel discussion on immigration. That session’s title: “Local action despite federal inaction.”

Local action, said Nowak, is what the St. Louis immigration and innovation steering committee is all about. But it does have a few tips for Congress.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.