Immigration policy — at least at national level — is increasingly getting stalled by divisive politics. In cities, by contrast, innovative approaches to integrating migrants are becoming widespread. But measuring how welcoming different cities are, beyond single initiatives, has been a challenge.
In the United States, that’s changing. A new integration index provides a comprehensive picture of how the country’s 100 largest cities stack up. It’s designed to enable cross-city comparison and spur improved policy practice across the US.
But the index shows that the cities with the right policies in place aren’t always the ones with the best outcomes. So what can policymakers learn from it?
The Cities Index is the brainchild of New American Economy (NAE), a research and advocacy group which since 2011 has worked with local and state governments to understand how immigrants contribute to their area and refine policies to better include them.
Those governments often asked how they compared to others, either similar cities or ones they aspired to imitate, said Andrew Lim, director of quantitative research at NAE. “There wasn’t a real comprehensive way to answer that,” he said.
NAE decided to answer governments’ questions systematically by building a national index, covering the 100 most populous cities in the country.
Each city is given separate scores for how its policies treat immigrants and how migrants’ socioeconomic outcomes differ from natives’.
The policy score measures whether cities have implemented policies like an office for immigrant affairs and translation services when dealing with the government.
It includes a mix of policies which affect primarily regular immigrants, such as professional licensing and entrepreneurship programs, and those like legal assistance which are more relevant to undocumented migrants.
“Especially in some of the larger cities, undocumented immigrants make up a very significant part of the total immigrant population. So to ignore the undocumented part of it would not tell the complete story of immigrant integration,” Lim explained.
It also tries to measure the degree of political backlash to immigration, by giving cities lower scores if exclusionary policies have been considered by officials even when they weren’t adopted. Such debate in itself makes a city less welcoming to its migrant population.
Cities’ socioeconomic scores are based on census data showing outcomes for residents by their country of birth. Places where migrants’ outcomes fall far behind natives get a lower score.
The index also controls for the skills of the population so that cities aren’t ranked higher or lower simply because they attract different types of immigrants.
San Francisco, for example, draws a large number of high-skilled migrants to work in its tech sector, whose outcomes will naturally exceed those of lower-skilled immigrants in other parts of the country.
- Newark, NJ
- Baltimore, MD
- New York, NY
- Chula Vista, CA
- San Francisco, CA
- Philadelphia, PA
- San Jose, CA
- Chicago, IL
- Fremont, CA
- Detroit, MI
What to learn?
The index has already sparked interest from officials in cities looking to find out how they could improve. “Cities are getting in contact with us,” Lim said, “and really using this data to inform their next policy proposals,” Lim said.
But learning from this year’s rankings is not straightforward, because the link between positive policies and better socioeconomic outcomes is not clear. Lim said that several years’ data might be needed to show how policy change translates into improving integration for migrants.
In this year’s index, many cities with highly-rated policies do not perform well on the outcome measure — and vice versa.
The equal top-ranked city for its socioeconomic score is Baton Rouge in Louisiana, which ranks last — with the lowest possible score — for its policies.
Of the top 14 cities by outcome, seven are in the bottom 20 for policy. Conversely, seven of the best-scoring 13 cities for policy have socioeconomic scores in the bottom half of the range.
That may be driven by factors unrelated to immigration. NAE researchers found cities falling into three broad categories, Lim said: traditional gateway cities, which perform well on policy, cities suffering from deindustrialisation, and fast-growing cities in the “Sunbelt” region of the country’s south.
The last group are mostly in the south, where pro-immigration policies are rarer. But their rapid growth means immigrants — just like the US-born, who are also moving to the Sunbelt in large numbers — have greater opportunities.
Welcoming immigrants and enabling them to flourish, in other words, is a complicated endeavour. Even cities that scored well on this inaugural index, according to Lim, are looking for ways to improve. “No city is resting on their laurels thinking, we’re great, we don’t have to do anything more. No city has done that at all.” — Fergus Peace
(Picture credit: Flickr/Kymberly Janisch)