Ibrahim Vajzovic sits behind a large wooden desk at First Bosnian Insurance Agency, the company he started in St. Louis eight years ago, and talks about the values of education and hard work. It’s one of three businesses he owns, in addition to teaching a course at Webster University, a liberal-arts college in Webster Groves.
Vajzovic, 53, who came to the U.S. in 1994 as a war refugee from Bosnia, is the portrait of a striving, successful immigrant that business leaders would like to see replicated, by the thousands. They say nothing short of St. Louis’s survival as a major American city is at stake.
While states such as Arizona and Alabama pass laws that put up stop signs to immigrants, St. Louis is offering a welcome mat. City boosters see attracting foreign-born workers as perhaps the only way to stem a population slide that has left their home with its lowest number of residents since 1880.
“We are not going to grow unless we have immigration,” said Charlie Dooley, the St. Louis County executive, who governs the adjacent county with interests tethered to the city. “Without immigration, no major metropolitan area will grow and expand and be a vital place where people want to be.”
The move to embrace immigrants in St. Louis comes along with signs that the debate in the U.S. Congress has shifted as well. Before the November elections, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney called Arizona’s restrictive immigration law “a model” for the nation. Yesterday, Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky and a favorite of anti-tax Tea Party activists, endorsed comprehensive immigration changes to give legal status to the nation’s 11 million undocumented workers.
Just as the poet Emma Lazarus’s words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” gave voice to the U.S. embrace of immigrants, business elders in St. Louis want to benefit from another great wave of newcomers.
For much of its history, St. Louis was a place people wanted to be. Its “Gateway to the West” motto was earned during westward expansion in the 1800s and German immigrants steamed up the Mississippi River to settle there. In 1900, it was the fourth largest city in the U.S. and four years later it hosted the World’s Fair that inspired the song “Meet Me in St. Louis.” It became a center for making everything from shoes to cars to beer. The 630-foot (192 meters) Gateway Arch is among the nation’s most iconic displays of public art.
Yet for the last half century, the city’s trajectory has been downward, and business leaders now are looking to immigrants to generate an economic rebirth.
One of their first tasks was to challenge some of the central arguments for tougher immigration laws, including those from the Republican-controlled Missouri legislature that considered bills to limit the influx of foreign-born residents.
A study by Jack Strauss, the director of the Simon Center for Regional Forecasting at St. Louis University, debunked many preconceptions about the negative impact of immigration, concluding that immigrants in the area on average earn $83,000 a year, or 25 percent more than American-born employees. They are 60 percent more inclined to start a business and three times more likely to be skilled rather than unskilled. Immigrants were also less likely to receive food stamps for cash assistance from the government.
Even so, in St. Louis there aren’t enough immigrants to turn around declining population.
They made up only 4.5 percent of the region’s people while other top 20 metropolitan areas had four to five times the number of foreign-born residents, Strauss found. The metropolitan area attracted 31,000 immigrants and lost 44,000 native-born Americans through domestic migration between 2001 and 2011. As a result, he said, those other regions averaged 40 percent “faster economic growth over the past decade.”
“If demographics is destiny, the St. Louis economy faces a long and difficult road ahead,” Strauss said.
St. Louis’s population has plunged to 318,000, down 8.3 percent since 2000 and down from a peak of 850,000 in 1950, when it was the 8th largest city in the U.S. Now, it is second only to Detroit in lowest population and immigration growth among the top 20 cities.
The change has affected its politics. Until 2008, Missouri was a more reliable predictor of the White House winner than Ohio. In 2012, President Barack Obama didn’t spend a single day campaigning there, and he won only 4 of the 166 election jurisdictions.
Missouri has missed the swelling tide of Hispanics that has touched other states, as they make up 3.5 percent of its population compared with 16.3 percent nationwide, census data show. Hispanics, like most immigrant groups, tend to vote Democrat.
The state legislature is dominated by Republicans, several of whom offered proposals to discourage immigrants, including requiring a driver’s license test be given only in English. Most of the measures failed, yet they sent a signal that immigrants weren’t welcome.
With its economy changing, reflecting the decline in manufacturing in the area, immigrants are needed for the biotechnology and medical industries on the high end, and for service-sector jobs on the lower end.
In 1990, companies such as General Dynamics Corp., McDonnell Douglas Corp., Trans World Airlines Inc., Ralston Purina Group and Anheuser-Busch, made St. Louis their corporate headquarters. None does today. They’ve been replaced by companies such as Express Scripts Holding Co., Reinsurance Group of America Inc. and Centene Corp. Chrysler Group LLC and Ford Motor Co. used to build cars here. Now only General Motors Co. operates a factory in the area.
Ken Warren, a professor of political science at Saint Louis University, has seen the city go through brief cycles of economic boom since his arrival in 1974. He is dubious that the push for immigrants will work.
“It’s hard to be optimistic to growing St. Louis through outreach programs because it hasn’t worked in the past,” Warren said. “I’ve got the proof on my side.”
Part of the city’s dilemma dates to the decision more than a century ago to form an independent governmental jurisdiction that limited its size to 61.37 square miles, walling itself off from the county, and losing the chance to expand.
Even within the city, early business titans set themselves apart, living in grand mansions built on private streets, places that would become home to playwright Tennessee Williams, publisher Joseph Pulitzer, and Dwight Davis, founder of the Davis Cup tennis tournament.
Those gated avenues added to the impression that the city didn’t embrace outsiders, another marker in a culture in which a common question among adults is: Where did you go to high school? Business leaders say that mindset must change.
“The perception that immigrants are predominantly uneducated, poorer individuals is incorrect and a perception arising perhaps from decades-old prejudices,” Strauss said.
“It’s a very hard cultural question: If we have not been intentionally inclusive, are we being unintentionally exclusive?” said Joe Reagan, president and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber. “With immigrants, if we are not curious who they are and where they came from and what are their hopes and dreams -- and that is not the default attitude -- then people will go where they are invited and feel included.”
Tim Nowak, executive director of the World Trade Center St. Louis, said he and other development leaders are telling businessmen that immigration is an economic issue.
“This is a numbers game and we are losing here and we are going to need everyone to get behind this to support it,” Nowak said.
If they fail, St. Louis may be destined for decline, rare for a city whose arc in U.S. history is so long. In 1904, when it hosted the World’s Fair and the Summer Olympics, it seemed ordained for prosperity. Immigrants flooded to the city, Germans, Italians, and Irish, to work in its factories.
Ethnic neighborhoods still dot the city, from the Hill, an Italian community where Yankees catcher Yogi Berra first played baseball, to German sections and a cluster of blocks called “Scrubby Dutch,” dating from an era when sidewalks were scoured to remove factory soot. The Catholic Church was a powerful force too, with its grand Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis an emblem of its sway.
It all combined to breed an insularity that is now reflected in the composition of its population.
“We just cannot talk about inclusion if we don’t do it,” said Dooley, the first African-American elected to a county-wide office. “People have to see it at the top. Minorities and women have to be part of the process itself. It can’t be the old boys’ club anymore.”
No foreign-born population makes up more than four-tenths of one percent of the people here. In 1978, the New York Times quoted George Wendel, an urban scholar at St. Louis University, as saying that even the bricks were leaving the city, a reference to bricks that were being exported after buildings were torn down.
There was a brief boom from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s when tax credits helped fuel gentrification in some neighborhoods and the Rouse Corporation remade the rail yard Union Station into a festive marketplace. That too, waned.
The state, like the city, has become whiter, older and less educated, census data show, and the challenge for business leaders will be to persuade that population to be accepting of new arrivals that don’t look like them.
“The politicians will be quite friendly to them and try to accommodate them, because that is one way to grow the city,” said Warren. “The city is just hurting. The people? Discrimination is everywhere. We have a very polarized city.”
That’s why Anna Crosslin, president and chief executive of the International Institute of St. Louis, an organization that has been helping immigrants and refugees since 1919, is working to change that.
“It has to work for the future of St. Louis,” Crosslin said. “Will it work? I think that depends on what element of risk St. Louisans are willing to live with. That there’s a sense of comfort in knowing what your future looks like even if there is a cycling down in the quality of life. Inviting immigrants means things will change.”
Sandy Tsai, vice president of a food supply business and immigrant from Taiwan, said newcomers don’t find it easy in the beginning.
“It takes a while,” she said. “The Show Me state always needs proof. When we have a new product coming out, it is really difficult to push in the St. Louis area. We need to go to the south, like Texas or Georgia, where they have a more open mind and are willing to try.”
She said that Asian immigrants are attracted to schools such as Washington University in St. Louis, and to high technology and science jobs at companies such as Monsanto Co.
She hires more entry-level workers, particularly Hispanics, she said.
“Our workers are mostly Mexican people,” she said. “But they do not stay long. Turnover is really fast.”
Though Missouri is a natural crossroads in the middle of the U.S., with the nation’s population center near the town of Plato, it hasn’t been a destination for Hispanics. Feliz Tovar, who leads Hispanic Day in the capital in Jefferson City, said Hispanics remain skeptical that they are accepted even as there are few alternatives to growth.
“If you look at the demographics there is no population growth in the white or black community and the only one you have potential for is the immigrant population,” Tovar said.
Still, unlike many neighboring states and other parts of the U.S., the Hispanic population is small. Tovar said that Hispanics get a mixed signal, with the state legislature debating anti-immigrant proposals and the St. Louis area offering an embrace.
“A lot of people are fed these myths that immigrants are taking away jobs, bringing in crime, bleeding the government dry. I don’t think there’s enough critical mass for the Latino community and because of that they don’t feel like they can come out of the shadows.”
The city is also seeking immigrants who graduate from Washington University and other colleges. Sam Fiorello, a first-generation immigrant whose parents came from Italy in 1960, is chief operating officer of the the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, where biologists and other scientists are testing plants for biofuels and agricultural purposes. He sees the other side of the immigration debate, the need to recruit highly educated workers.
He cited the difficulty of one scientist from India looking to start a business in the area. He had immigration problems and was sent home to Delhi until they were resolved, slowing expansion plans.
“In my opinion we should be giving them a basketball, apple pie, a hot dog and a season ticket to the Cardinals rather than make it a nightmare,” Fiorello said.
If there is one success story it is among the Bosnian refugees who now call St. Louis home. Vajzovic said it wasn’t easy, though the fact that so many had advanced education and business experience made acceptance of him easier.
The walls of his insurance office are covered with posters from his old and new world. One reads “Greetings from Prijedor,” a Bosnian city where Serbs propagated a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Muslims. Another shows a map of Missouri and and a third is a tourist poster from Sarajevo.
He is among 7,000 refugees who initially were resettled in St. Louis, and now officials say the area has the largest Bosnian community outside of Bosnia, perhaps numbering 40,000. Unlike other immigrants, the Bosnians came here as refugees rather than for economic reasons, so their relative success may stand in isolation.
Vajzovic said St. Louis opened its arms to him. “People were very friendly,” he said. “I would never forget that.”