Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A City of Refugees

This summer I've started researching the geography of immigrant and refugee settlement in eastern Iowa and western Illinois. I'll be blogging here about how immigrant settlement patterns have transformed the urban landscape, local economies and identity in the Midwest.

This New York Times article on the evolution of Utica, NY into a city of refugees is an excellent introduction to the issues that small cities and towns face across the Rust Belt and rural Midwest. As deindustrialization devastated local economies, immigrants and refugees have often "stemmed the decline", as a non-profit director in Utica put it in the article. The impact of immigration in small towns can be highly visible in several ways, most notably in the revitalization of commercial districts and the creation of new businesses. The association between immigration and entrepreneurship has led cities like Dayton and St. Louis to actively recruit immigrants through a more welcoming image and business-friendly public policies.

The scale of the transformation in places like Utica, which has almost one-forth of its population made up of refugees that have settled in the city since the 1970s, can be much more dramatic than in large cities like New York City. Immigrants can be seen as a threat to an established identity and bring different challenges with them (particularly ESL and interpretation needs). Some newcomers are successful relatively quickly, while others take longer to get established. What stands out in the case of Utica, and is particularly applicable to the Quad Cities, is the sense of possibility that newcomers bring to declining or stagnant cities. While national debates on immigration certainly shape responses to immigration (see the response to the proposal by the Davenport mayor to host unaccompanied refugee children in the Iowa Quad Cities), my research so far suggests that localities are more likely to accept demographic changes when there seem to be limited options for revitalization.

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