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St. Louis' Office of New Americans tries to turn the tide on city population decline

Gilberto Pinela, director of the Office of New Americans, poses for a portrait on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, at City Hall in Downtown West. Pinela was appointed to the office in October last year.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Gilberto Pinela, director of the Office of New Americans, on Feb. 2 at City Hall in downtown St. Louis. Pinela was appointed to lead the office in October.

Over the past few years, St. Louis-area resettlement agencies and immigrant organizations have received thousands of new arrivals from Afghanistan, Ukraine, parts of Africa and other countries with hopes that they would help increase St. Louis’ declining population and boost its economy.

According to the U.S. census, there are over 135,000 foreign-born people living in the St. Louis region, which is about 5% of the population.

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones created the Office of New Americans in October to help streamline resources for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Her goal is to prioritize newly arriving families by helping them navigate local services and connecting them with various city agencies that can prepare them for life in St. Louis.

Jones appointed Gilberto Pinela, former Cortex Innovation Community communications director, to lead the new office. Pinela moved to St. Louis 30 years ago from New York City for work. He was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Pinela said he is looking forward to helping immigrants and refugees become a part of the city’s community and he hopes the office’s work will inspire other local governments to start government initiatives to welcome new arrivals.

The Office of New Americans is working to bridge the gap between city government and refugee and immigrant organizations by offering pathways or solutions to lure and keep new arrivals in the city, said Pinela.

We have population loss, so we are interested in bringing new people in from the outside,” he said. “But attracting and retaining new Americans, whether it's refugees or immigrants, is also a key for our long-term growth and prosperity, which perhaps will translate to the entire region.”

Demographers say St. Louis is competing with cities that have programs and initiatives available to make immigrants want to move to their cities.

If you see the refugees that are coming through any of the organizations … they are building community,” Pinela said. “They are not only bettering their lives, they are also contributing and giving back to the community, and therefore it makes it better for everybody.”

St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson spoke with Gilberto Pinela about St. Louis’ efforts to prioritize new arrivals.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Andrea Henderson: What are the priorities of the Office of New Americans?

Gilberto Pinela: Language access is one of the main priorities for the office. Also, making sure that we become a welcoming city for new Americans. Right now, I'm in the process of reevaluating what a welcoming city looks like, what a welcoming certification will look like. And I'm making sure that the Office of New Americans which is one of her [Mayor Tishaura Jones] priorities, serves the needs or incorporates, integrates those new Americans that are coming into St. Louis into the services that we offer. Meaning that if you are a client of the International Institute, or you came through community resettlement agencies and you want to open up a business that we have, we give you the tools that you need, perhaps in your language, so that you can understand fully the commitments, the regulations, the rules and the protocols and the procedures that you need to follow in order to have a very successful business that thrives and contributes to what makes St. Louis great.

Henderson: You have been living in St. Louis for 30 years and have experience with many cultures and groups of people through work and community. What role do you think immigrants and refugees play in St. Louis?

Pinela: Refugees and immigrants play a very important role for St. Louis. No. 1, they create value by bringing in culture and experiences from places outside of this bubble that we call St. Louis. They work hard. They come here also with education because a lot of the migrants and refugees are already proficient to some capacity in English. They come with degrees … and they are ready to contribute.

We have population loss, so we are interested in bringing new people in from the outside. We have issues, obviously, that we have to tackle here that are very, very important, but attracting and retaining new Americans, whether it's refugees or immigrants, is also a key for our long-term growth and prosperity, which perhaps will translate to the entire region.

Henderson: Talk about retaining immigrants, migrants or refugees and how that can translate into bolstering that economy that we are trying to see, especially knowing like you stated that St. Louis is on a population decline.

Pinela: We want to prep the tools to make it easier for refugees, immigrants to come and see St. Louis as a place where they can stay, where they can fall in love, raise a family, give back to the community, contribute to the tax base and generate revenue. The way that we do that is through the Office of New Americans, and the city government is looking at our policies and what we offer right now.

How can we offer inclusion by making sure that a person that comes through to City Hall to look for a service, they can feel like they belong and they are welcome here? Whether it is that they are looking for a business license or a marriage license, what does that look like in a form in a paper? If they are looking to buy a home or they are looking to do some research, who is on the other side of the counter that can help them navigate through this system?

Henderson: Many service providers are saying that they are becoming overwhelmed, since there are so many new arrivals coming in. What is the Office of New Americans planning to do to help loosen up the stress on these organizations?

Pinela: Right now, I'm taking a lot of meetings. I'm meeting with a lot of different organizations to find out what is going on at the ground level and how they are tackling or handling it.

Henderson: So far, what are some of their needs?

Pinela: Housing is always a big need. I go back to that language access, having the opportunity to give the tools to those people that are already here that are work authorized, that are on their way — whether they have a green card or on their way to become permanent residents in the United States. If they want to open up business, if they want to use some of our services … how can we make the city government work more effectively for those individuals, so they can feel comfortable and they can feel that they are a part of the city?

Henderson: We are receiving large numbers of newcomers from various countries, including Latin American countries. There has been some opposition from people in the region who are concerned about St. Louis becoming overcrowded from a growing population. What is your response to those who have reservations about migrants coming from Latin American countries or from any other country to St. Louis?

Pinela: We are also concerned, because we do not want to see people on the streets. We know what is going on in Denver, Chicago and New York with that situation. I know that the community agencies that are working to provide direct services to these new arrivals, work very hard at what they do to make sure that the new arrivals — whether they are refugees, immigrants or asylum seekers — feel that they have the support that they need in order to get up and be contributing members of society. Nobody is coming here to do crime … they just want to live a normal life. They want to be a part of society. They want to have stability, so they can raise their family. And they want to give back to the community.

Henderson: How does the Office of New Americans plan to make St. Louis the most immigrant friendly city.

Pinela: We have a strategic plan that I'm working on right now, to make sure that we become a welcoming city. I want to continue working with organizations that are direct service providers at the local level. Work with them in collaboration on establishing a pathway, policies and protocols that we can use as a government, then inspire other local governments to follow our lead and work as a region. So we can not only make St. Louis a welcoming city, but also make our entire region from here to Jefferson County to St. Charles County, a welcoming region.

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