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The Wall Street Journal.

Save Our Cities
March 30, 2007

By Julia Vitullo-Martin

The fate of a two-year-old war on illegal immigrants declared by the mayor of tiny Hazleton, Pa., a former coal town, is now in the hands of a federal judge. He will rule by June on Hazleton's Illegal Immigration Relief Act, which penalizes local businesses and landlords who employ or rent to illegal immigrants.

During the nine-day trial that concluded last Friday, Mayor Lou Barletta argued that some 10,000 undocumented immigrants have ruined Hazleton's quality of life: Violent crime has doubled in the past two years, unreimbursed medical expenses at local hospitals have jumped 60% and the annual school budget for teaching English as a second language has soared to $875,000 from $500. Yet business owners and landlords argued the opposite—that immigrants had revitalized Hazleton's moribund economy, filling once-vacant apartments and patronizing once-declining businesses. As a result, Hazleton's budget has been in the black for three years—a far cry from its $1.2 million deficit in 2000.

We will wait for the judge's ruling in Hazleton's case, but in other cities the verdict is already in: Immigrants have significantly improved the quality of life in many of America's most successful cities. Take Flushing, Queens. Passersby on the way from one of New York's airports into Manhattan may notice that Flushing has it all—high-end seafood in elegant settings, bubble tea cafes and fried noodles from street vendors, not to mention Vietnamese pho and Korean barbecue. A jumble of restaurants, bakeries, storefronts and cultural institutions, Flushing, home to 177,000 people, is thriving.

What a difference a few decades make. In the 1960s Flushing was a wasteland, those same storefronts boarded up and the sidewalks empty—so derelict that the area was designated in the city's 1975 federal community development block grant application as eligible for urban renewal money. Then came the Chinese immigrants, first in small numbers, then in great waves, through the 1980s and '90s. Long-time city planning official Sandy Hornick summarizes the 1970s as "back when we were trying to figure out what to do with Flushing before Flushing figured it out for itself."

Things looked very different for all of New York City back then. Facing bankruptcy, the city government found itself the reluctant owner of some 400,000 housing units abandoned by their owners, who refused to pay the steep property taxes. Many New Yorkers, in their despair at what seemed to be the city's inexorable decline, missed that their saviors were at hand. Chinese, especially from Hong Kong, and other Asians moved into Lower Manhattan; Dominicans and other Caribbeans spread through the Bronx and northern Manhattan; the Russians flooded Brighton Beach in Brooklyn; the Irish returned to northern Manhattan; Bengalis, Turks, Albanians, Uzbeks, Romanians moved to Queens. Immigrants are now even revitalizing sections of the most bucolic borough, Staten Island.

The recent bitter debates about immigration have split parties and divided allies, but one group has steadfastly supported immigrants: the smart big-city mayors—Michael Bloomberg (New York), Antonio Villaraigosa (Los Angeles), Richard Daley (Chicago), Manny Diaz (Miami), Thomas Menino (Boston). "No public policy is more important to cities than federal immigration policy," says Mitchell Moss, professor of planning and public policy at New York University. "The immigration act of 1965 that opened up the country again and did more for cities than all the HUD bureaucrats put together or all the money spent on federal housing, transportation and welfare."

All booming American cities are immigrant cities. It's practically tautological. Cities that welcome immigrants—both legal and illegal—tend to have vital economies that expand exponentially as immigrants open new businesses, fill vacant jobs and move into declining neighborhoods. Immigrants form "extended clans," to use a term coined by Nathan Glazer and Pat Moynihan. They capture, and sometimes even invent, markets.

Jewish diamond cutters, Korean green grocers, Chinese restaurateurs, Russian massage therapists, Irish bartenders and Greek coffee-shop owners aren't stereotypes. They are the reflection of a real economic phenomenon. Immigrants sell goods and services to their own group and, once successful, to everybody else. Armed with little capital, they start labor-intensive businesses that employ friends and neighbors. The neighborhoods they settle in are decrepit, the commercial streets tired, the infrastructure overtaxed, the schools deplorable, but so what? All that will change when immigrants reach a core number, making an area their own.

New York, with some three million immigrants (about one-sixth of whom are here illegally), is the ultimate immigrant city—and also the country's wealthiest. These two facts are not unrelated. New York may be unique in many respects, but there is no reason that the positive effect of immigrants can't be felt in cities much smaller. Mr. Moss argues: "There's nothing wrong with upstate [New York] cities that a good influx of immigrants couldn't solve." He notes that immigrants are already saving second-tier cities elsewhere, such as Minneapolis and Reading, Pa., an economically distressed, former industrial city with handsome housing stock.

Today it is not the Chinese but the Dominicans who are driving much of this next wave of urban revitalization. In 1990, nearly three-fourths of the country's half-million Dominicans lived in traditional gateway metropolitan areas like New York City, Paterson and Passaic, N.J., and Miami. Today that proportion is about 60%, says Pennsylvania State professor of sociology Leif Jensen. Highly entrepreneurial, Dominicans are opening small businesses—restaurants, bodegas, taxi companies, auto repair shops—in their new cities of Reading and Harrisburg, Pa., Grand Rapids, Mich., and Daytona, Fla.—all cities that had been suffering from declining residential demand.

This isn't to say that there aren't problems. Reading, for example, has for several years been one of the most dangerous cities in the country, with a violent crime rate roughly twice the national average. Immigrants there and everywhere are in a sort of race: Will the hard-working, upwardly mobile ones be able to reap the rewards of American society fast enough to get their children educated and keep them out of trouble?

Not far from Reading, in Hazleton, Mayor Barletta says that local immigrants are losing that race and his town will suffer long-term harm as a result. Maybe a trip to Flushing would change his mind.


Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

©2007 The Wall Street Journal


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