St. Louis immigration project aims to communicate

6-27-13 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
by Tim Logan 

CREVE COEUR — If St. Louis wants to attract more immigrants, it needs to do a better job telling its story — to itself and to the world.

That was the common theme of a two-hour summit Thursday morning that served as a launch party for the St. Louis Mosaic Project, a year-old but newly christened effort to grow the region’s economy by attracting more foreign-born immigrants. St. Louis has one of the smallest immigrant populations of any big city in the country and business leaders are trying to change that, pointing to research that immigrants are more likely than average to start new businesses and create jobs and that many have the skills local companies need to grow.

“Foreign-born people are economic drivers in the regions where they live,” said Betsy Cohen, who is leading the project. “We need to pick up our pace if we want to keep up.”

But the region faces a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. Immigrants are most likely to move to places that already have a lot of immigrants, and while they may eventually create jobs, most at first are following economic opportunity. St. Louis lags in both.

On Thursday, the group released a study by St. Louis University economist Jack Strauss looking at how the region might be able to change that, and what other places are trying. A big piece of the puzzle is communications and connections.

Even within the St. Louis area, many immigrant communities are dispersed, Strauss found. Helping newcomers better connect with each other is a good first step to building networks that will help connect St. Louis to their home countries, he said. So one of his study’s recommendations is to create “virtual ethnic enclaves,” essentially websites to better connect the communities of Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese and others who are already here.

Another is to better connect international students with employers in the region, to help them stay here after college. That’s getting under way already, Cohen said. Five local universities and the Regional Business Council are starting this fall on an internship and mentoring program aimed at immigrant students.

A third step: The Mosaic project is recruiting 50 “ambassadors” — volunteers who’ll talk with community groups about the importance of boosting immigration here.

This conversation is important to building a welcoming community, said Ibrahim Vajzovic, who moved here from Bosnia 20 years ago and today owns three businesses with 50 employees.

“The public perception of immigrants is important. We have to educate people,” he said, pointing out that immigrants, too, need to learn about the culture of their new home. “Educating both sides is very important.”

Most of this is still in the planning stages. Cohen said the group will keep talking over the next few months, devising specific recommendations and budgets. Then it will start raising money for more concrete, and costly, pieces of the project, like a more robust immigrant welcoming center.

But there is a sense of urgency, too, especially on a day the Senate passed an immigration reform bill that would re-write the rules for how people come into this country.

That bill still must pass the House of Representatives, but it’s important to get on the map now, said Joe Reagan, president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber.

“We want to position St. Louis at the front of the pack,” he said. “That means we’ve got to be very proactive in the next few months and the next year.”

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