Two decades ago, when St. Louis answered a U.S. State Department call to accept Bosnian refugees, its leaders could not have predicted the ripple effect that would have on the local economy. Today St. Louis is thought to be home to more Bosnians than any other city in the country, and the newcomers are credited with helping to reverse the negative economic impact of a declining native-born population.
Over the past decade, 31,000 immigrants arrived in St. Louis, while 44,000 native-born Americans left. A State Department refugee relocation program brought 7,000 Bosnians to the city between 1993 and 2001. Today, the International Institute of St. Louis, which sponsored the Bosnians, estimates they number nearly 70,000 (this number includes American-born family members). That’s due in large part to what scholars call “secondary migrations.” As Anna Crosslin, president of the nonprofit organization that resettled the refugees, explains, “Bosnians who were settled in others cities began to hear about a place where someone’s cousin was living, and they reorganized themselves.” They came from major places like Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco, where even a studio apartment can cost $1,200 per month, says Crosslin. In St. Louis, they could make a down payment on a home, and soon they were rehabilitating older neighborhoods.
“They had substantial skill sets so they could shore up the manufacturing that was being done at the time,” says Crosslin, whose St. Louis International Institute helps new populations to find jobs and housing, learn English, apply for citizenship, and negotiate the school system.
The Bosnians had math and science aptitudes that American high-school graduates lacked, says Crosslin. She says one motor-parts manufacturer credited its Bosnian employees with its ability to stay in business.
As manufacturing jobs began to move overseas, the Bosnians started opening their own businesses. They did so with help from microloans of up to $35,000 from Crosslin’s institute. Some Bosnians began driving trucks for large retailers and eventually launched trucking businesses. Some drove cabs, or opened cleaning or car detailing services. Among the successful Bosnian businesses today are bakeries, butcher shops, coffee shops, construction, and heating and cooling companies, according to a report by the Simon Center for Regional Forecasting at Saint Louis University.
In the eighteen years since he arrived from Bosnia, Ibrahim Vajzovic has learned English, earned his master’s and PhD degrees, and gone from holding an entry-level printing job to being the owner of three companies. The companies—in real estate, insurance, and trucking—bring in combined revenues of $10 million a year and employ fifty people, mostly not Bosnians. “The help from the International Institute was very beneficial,” says Vajzovic, noting in particular the English classes, job placement help, and help building connections.
“This is how our major urban areas got built,” observes Bob Holden, who was Missouri’s governor from 2001 to 2005. “Immigrants add tremendous economic value to the community.”
Immigrants tend to be younger than the native-born and are more likely to be working, so they help a city’s tax base, according to a June, 2012, report by Jack Strauss, director of the Simon Center. He predicts St. Louis will lose more than a quarter of its workforce to retirement in the next two decades.
The city’s population has shrunk from a high of 850,000 in 1950 to 320,000. If St. Louis had received as many immigrants as other cities of its size, the center estimates, income growth would have been 4- to 7 percent greater, and the region’s income would be 7- to 11 percent higher.
One key to the successful integration of Bosnians, according to Crosslin, was the clustering of the population near the south side of town, which is near her agency and a major bus hub. That has also given them visibility, and forced local leaders to be responsive to their needs. State and city governments have provided driver’s license tests and notices about municipal services in Bosnian.
Bosnians are probably St. Louis’ largest foreign-born population, says Holden. However, their children are growing up American, and do not need the same translation services. He calls the Bosnians’ presence a “great opportunity for St. Louis and other Midwestern cities,” and says, “If the political leadership would understand their importance and value to the economy, [immigrants] could accelerate the economic growth.”
Still, even though the Midwest has much to offer newcomers, Holder cautions it is not usually the first place immigrants think of going. That makes it all the more important, he said, for political leaders to “put out the welcome mat.”
Bosnians like Vajzovic, who have prospered in St. Louis, say they appreciate the friendly city with its good values, good architecture, promising job market, and business ethics, and want to reciprocate its investment in them. “We try to be very ethical and give something back to the community by creating good-paying jobs and developing more properties,” says Vajzovic of his company. “We reinvest everything we have.”
SOURCE: Immigration Task Force
[wpfilebase tag=file id=134 /]