Why Inmigration Really Matters, Particularly to the Rust Belt


Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s recent comment about immigration has drawn some local ire. At his annual remarks on the state of the city, the Mayor—in response to a question of how Cleveland can end its population decline by attracting immigrants—stated: “I believe in taking care of your own”.

To be fair, the Mayor contextualized the statement by inferring that the best attraction strategy is to build a city that works for those who reside in it. In some respects I agree. In fact America attracts immigrants not because of “attraction strategies”, but because it offers the prospects of a better quality of life. So, if a city can nail that down, well, that is a hell of a pull.

The problem, though, is that historically inward-facing legacy cities such as Cleveland have had a hard time moving the needle toward progress because fresh blood is lacking, and so a “taking care of your own” strategy often devolves into policies that simply further fossilize the status quo.


Because such cities—with low rates of inmigration, and a long lineage of social capital that can tip to the side of insularity and territorial encampment—have too much inertia, which is defined as “the resistance of an object to change its state of motion or rest”.

Inertia is real, not simply in physics, but in organizational behavior, such as city politics and policy. And the more historical it is, the thicker the status quo, and thus the harder it is for a city to change—meaning the future, or the momentum of the city, can be like a train chugging to constant stops of stagnation unless a “force outside the system…act[s] upon the system for a long enough period of time to have any effect on changing the momentum.”

Enter the importance of outsiders, be they immigrants, returning expats, or just new people from other parts of the country. Without them cities get stuck. People see the same things, talk the same things over. Bullshit territorial divides like East- versus West-side of the Cuyahoga River reign, effectively cutting a city’s “brain” in half. Business is business as usual, then. Hence the post-industrial-sixty-year decline.

Writes Aaron Renn over at Urbanophile:

I previously noted how it generally takes a critical mass of outsiders, enough to create a constituency for change in its own right, to drive real disruptive change in a community. These are the people who aren’t invested in the status quo. Absent that, getting reform that works will be a difficult challenge.

Echoes migration expert and blogger Jim Russell:

Without migration, there are no cities. An urban landscape is more than a draw for talent. Metros thrive on churn, both the influx and egress of people…

… The very act of moving, particularly to the top tier of global cities, is entrepreneurial. You are surrounded by risk-takers and innovation. The competition is fierce. The cream of the crop is seeking any edge, looking for any opening.

I am learning about the power of migration first hand. You see, I am a lifelong Clevelander, a West Sider, one well-versed in the how things are customarily done around here, and what thoughts and words are commonly produced if only through a Rust Belt inertia that can be cloaked in “tradition”. My partner, Andiara Lima, is a relative newcomer from Vale do Aço, or the “Steel Valley” of Brazil. Before I met her I was ignorant to the presence of the Brazilian community in Cleveland. Now, I no longer am, and the experience provides me with on-the-ground lessons as to the importance of migration in evolving the Rust Belt “way”.

brazil house party

For instance, individually speaking, my panorama is being broadened, with the dominant cultural connotations of Cleveland defined primarily by whiteness or blackness taking a needed hit. For instance, I was at a Brazilian-hosted house party not long back, and it was like nothing I ever experienced. The dining room was cleared, bodies moved, sweat poured, people screamed and shook ass. A band was set up to play bossa nova along a window seat. And it was happening all in the neighborhood of my childhood, but way beyond my childhood. Rather a feeling of something forward.  Not just past. Not identity politics, but a freshness needed so that crusty legacy and power can be dampened if only to bust identity politics up.

No doubt, these identity politics hurt the region’s ability to welcome and catalyze emerging groups. For instance, I am reminded of a recent Facebook comment on a local politician’s page that discussed a community forum about how Cuyahoga County government reform would affect race relations. The commenter notes:

The whole panel was black or white people. The Asians and Latinos were in the back of the room wondering “what about us?”

“What about us?”

It’s a good question, and one local leaders shouldn’t underestimate given the region’s need for fresh blood. And we aren’t just talking bodies, but talent, as migrants are “economic ass-kickers”, particularly due the fact that migration is in itself an act of entrepreneurialism.

For instance, my partner Andiara studies the Brazilian trade market for a local investment company. Her informational network into the country, both professionally and informally, is deep. For me, she is a link between two Rust Belt worlds, shattering my sense of restrictive locality for a borderless view that gets me thinking about how to position Cleveland not just regionally, but globally.

For Cleveland, she is a reserve for local industry that should be both cultivated and tapped, especially since—as the US Ambassador to Brazil recently said at Cleveland’s Union Club—“Brazil is an economic and democratic power the United States needs as a partner”.

And there is Luca Mondaca and Moises Borges, both acclaimed Brazilian musicians who are plugging (into) and broadening (out) Cleveland’s musical legacy. Yet there is frustration, particularly for Luca, as she feels isolated, untapped, and sometimes lost in the culture of a city that—while desperate for freshness—has difficulty getting beyond the inertia that comes with being comfortably stale. And while I am hopeful that the city is in fact becoming more welcoming—and that the opportunity afforded by the region’s affordability and legacy assets can further open the inmigrant sluicegates—passive optimism is not an option.

Neither is parochial playmaking.

In fact, Andiara Lima, Luca Mondaca, and Moises Borges are Cleveland’s “own”. But without that recognition, they may not be for very much longer.

Richey Piiparinen is a writer and policy researcher based in Cleveland. He is co-editor of Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. Read more from him at his blog and at Rust Belt Chic.

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