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Immigration key to area growth, supporters say

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    Efforts under way on both sides of the Mississippi River are painting the issue as more than a line in the sand separating the United States and Mexico. Without reform, they say, there is serious risk of not having a skilled workforce to do the jobs that will soon be vacated by baby boomers; falling further behind other communities; and losing out on potentially valuable resources in sciences and other fields.
    Jim Pennekamp, special assistant to the chancellor for regional economic development and executive director of University Park at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, was part of a
four-person panel that presented a recent program on immigration in Belleville. He cited a study released in July by the International Economic Development Council, which offers some eye-opening details on the potential economic development impact of immigration.
    Key to community advancement, he said, is understanding that:
    – Immigrants contribute skills that may not otherwise be easily available.
    – Some 65 percent of all foreign students in the United States are studying science, technology and math, so-called STEM curriculum. In advanced degree programs, some 40 to 45 percent are in STEM.
    – Immigrants are filling jobs in the economy that native-born workers do not want.
    – Foreign-born consumers create a demand  for goods and services, and foreign-owned businesses in the United States generate $775 billion in revenue and $110 billion in income.
    – Every major city that grew in the population in the last Census did so because of immigrant growth.
    “They are already here, they are already part of the economy and we need to be aware of that,” Pennekamp said.

    The Development Council recommends that communities tailor their immigration strategy to a region’s economic needs, which is part of a campaign now being advanced by Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, which sponsored last month’s presentation, and a similar one in November, held at SIUE.
    The idea is to promote the bi-state St. Louis region as a great place to live, work and build a business — and to grow it through “new Americans.” Growing the immigrant population can raise wages, lower unemployment, increase new business starts, and boost real estate values, supporters say.
    On the panel with Pennekamp were Anna Croslin, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis; Betsy Cohen, project director of St. Louis Mosaic Project; and Chris Eckert, head of Eckert’s Inc., one of the largest family owned orchard operations in the area. The group spoke before a large audience of business and social service agency representatives  at Eckert’s Restaurant in Belleville.
    Crosslin’s agency has for 95 years served as a welcoming and advocacy center for immigrants.
    St. Louis, because of its location, became a hub for immigrants from its beginning. In 1850, Crosslin said, 50 percent of the population here was foreign-born. At that time, foreign-born population in St. Clair County was 57 percent. Today, it’s 3 percent, and similar disparities exist around the area.
    Today, immigrants are coming to Southern Illinois mainly for college, military operations, and as migrant farm workers, largely leaving the area and not settling here.
    But while the International Institute of St. Louis deals with some 8,000 immigrants on the Missouri side it has fewer than 20 in its database representing Southern Illinois, Crosslin said, pointing to a need to get the word out among those who could use the agency’s services.
    Her office works with several Illinois agencies, the FBI and others on the problem of human trafficking, which is worse among the immigrant populations.
    Her office also sponsors the Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park each August, drawing about 140,000 people, many from Metro East.
    “While you may not have a lot of immigrants over here (in Southwestern Illinois), you clearly have a lot of people interested in cultural diversity,” Crosslin said.
    Cohen noted that all communities compete for immigration talent and her chief goal in the Mosaic Project is attracting it to St. Louis.
    “We want to be part of a thriving region, and many people in this country are looking for where they are going to get a good opportunity,” she said.
    While the bulk of the conversation dealt with legal immigrants, no one was dodging the big elephant in the room — the 11 million people who are in the country illegally, now the subject of debate in Washington, D.C.
    The challenge is blending all the elements into a thriving result, she said.
    “As we change as a country, how do we position our region to be on a virtuous path for growth, kind of the race to the top? Be a growing region and not be a region that is stagnant, negative or in decline?” she said.
    The St. Louis region is the 19th largest in population but 43rd in the country in terms of foreign-born individuals. The bi-state region has 2.8 million people, with a foreign-born population of just under 5 percent. Other cities in the top 20 are at 20 percent, she said.
    “We’re low; we need to grow,” she said. “We want our region to be the fastest-growing in terms of immigration by 2020.”
    A study done by Jack Strauss, director of the Simon Center for Regional Forecasting at Saint Louis University, concluded there are several ways of reaching out. If the strategy could be summed up, it would be, coming up with a flexible yet coordinated plan that enlists the input of the local community, government, political leaders and legislators, while working with international students, online and in person.
    She encouraged people to become program “ambassadors,”  individuals — many of them community leaders — who have committed to supporting the St. Louis Mosiac Project’s mission to attract and retain more foreign-born of all skill levels. Her agency announced in February that it had just recruited its 300th ambassador, former Missouri Gov. Bob Holden.
    Eckert said his industry depends on migrant workers, and he has about 30 at his farming operations, which 200 people full time year-round and 500 seasonally.
    “It’s kind of funny, if I would offer an American a job picking our fruit they would look at me like I disrespected them. But if I were to charge them to come pick our fruit …,” he said, noting the irony and the success of his pick-your-own business.
    Eckert said there is a common “misconception” that migrant workers are in unskilled or low-wage jobs.
    “In fact, our migrant work force is some of our highest-paid workers that we have and many of them have been working for us for five or more years and are very efficient at what they do. They are skilled in cutting trees, pruning trees, harvesting fruit effectively. Those are tough jobs to find people with experience in.”
    Eckert said  11 million people didn’t flow into the country unnoticed during the past two decades, but because business needed the workers, the problem was ignored until more recently when the traditional job market began drying up.
    Eckert said the agriculture industry employs about 2 million people — 95 percent of whom are illegals.
    “If you’re eating broccoli, salad or peaches or apples or any produce item that was harvested by hand, there’s a 95 percent chance it was harvested by an illegal alien,” he said.
    Eckert’s seven years ago began to participate in the federal H2A program, which allows business to get workers to temporarily come into the country for work purposes only.
    There is a lot of red tape to go through, including providing housing and transportation for the workers as well as paying the minimum wage and about $1,000 per visa in fees. Last year the government issued about 80,000 H2A visas, far short of what is needed by the entire ag industry.
    Growers in states that pay a lower minimum wage to such workers have an unfair advantage over states like Illinois, when it comes to selling products at market, he said.
    “The solution going forward is complicated. Agriculture needs a solution. Large growers are going to take the matters into their own hands and move production to Mexico or somewhere where they can grow their produce, have a reliable workforce and be able to ship it back into the United States.” Blueberries, blackberries and tomatoes are already being grown in such way, he said.
    The down side of importing produce is lack of regulation in such areas as food safety, he said.
    In addition to the 11 million who are here, Crosslin said there are another five million people who have been approved for immigration through the legal system, who are backed up as much as 22 years in getting their applications finalized, depending on the country from which they are trying to apply.
    “The system itself is not working. Even if half of (the illegals) were to apply, they would have to get in the back of those five million and you’d be talking 50 years,” she said.
    Congress’ reluctance to make major moves is largely a reaction to their constituents. Most of what leaders hear are complaints about the idea of amnesty.
    “The general population does not understand the economic consequences of what might happen if they removed those people from the workforce,” Crosslin said.
    Pennekamp, who is also a board member of the St. Louis Mosaic Project, was executive director at Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois for 17 years and helped convince that agency to get behind the immigration reform movement. The agency is comprised of business leaders from around the region.
    “Being an immigrant is really an entrepreneurial activity,” he said. “Think about it, you’re leaving your home country, you’re moving someplace else. There are huge obstacles to overcome.”
    For more information on the region’s efforts: go to or

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