We are in the midst of a major geopolitical crisis over immigration, fueled by war and catalyzed by terrorism. It’s no secret that one consequence is a rising tide of anti-immigration sentiment here in the United States. Recent events have prejudiced our long debate over illegal immigrants and secure borders to the point where any sensible discussion of policy has been all but drowned out.
To many older Americans, this wave of anger and fear is breathtaking in its reactionary rhetoric. Talk of registration, ID cards, screening based upon religious beliefs and denial of admission to entire nationalities calls to mind other governments and times so hostile to our ideals that more than half a million Americans have paid the ultimate price since World War Two to defeat them. To me, this cowardly retreat from our values is beneath contempt. But the bigger tragedy is that all this sturm und drang threatens to make us forget a simple truth: immigrants are good for America. For those of us who live in the North Country this fact applies even more strongly than it does to other parts of the nation. Immigrants are very good for the Adirondacks.
As we all know, Adirondack demographics don’t look so good. The dual national phenomena of an aging baby boom and rural flight are impacting our communities. The average age of North Country residents is increasing (heading north of fifty) at the same time that school enrollments are declining. Meanwhile, as the rest of New York State is rapidly becoming more culturally diverse, the Adirondacks remain in a literal and figurative monochromatic stasis. The region risks becoming an ever-less-relevant cultural and social island.
Reinforcing these negative trends are the unique economic pressures our residents face. Extractive industries such as mining and logging are all but dead and tourism is a seasonal phenomenon. Population densities, infrastructure, and transportation challenges discourage large corporate employers from locating here. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy. This is more true than elsewhere in the country – we need more “main street” businesses.
To all our demographic, cultural and economic challenges, the promise of an increase in immigrants provide a compelling response, right down the line. While the median age of immigrants is a bit higher than the national average, it is in line with the median age in the Adirondack region and lower than the projected median age over the next 15 years. More important, most immigrants are families who will put their children in schools. Multiple studies show that over the last decade increases in school enrollments in the United States are almost entirely due to immigrants. Immigrants to the United States are more varied than ever before in history, fueling a more diverse and culturally rich American society. An increase in immigrants to the Adirondacks would lower the median age, increase school enrollments and enhance diversity.
Of equal importance, a positive flow of immigrants would also improve the Adirondack economy. That’s because the very back bone of the Park’s economy – “main street” businesses – would get a shot in the arm.
Last Saturday I attended a retreat and workshop in Blue Mountain Lake on Immigration and Upstate Economic Development, convened by the Fiscal Policy Institute, International Institute of Buffalo, Centerstate CEO, and the New York Immigration Coalition. The workshop was focused on four upstate areas – Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and the Capitol Region – but they generously invited the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council (ADAC) and the Adirondack Foundation to contribute a North Country perspective and learn more about the issues, which we certainly did. The primary topic was how leadership in upstate New York can improve their local economies by welcoming, retaining, and removing barriers to immigrants.
As a basis to support the discussion, the non-partisan The Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI) provided some strong statistics that showed that immigrants truly anchor America’s main street economy. While immigrants account for 13% of the population nationally, they account for an astonishing 28% of main street business ownership: restaurants, grocery stores, retail shops and neighborhood service businesses like dry cleaners, salons and the like… in other words, the very anchors of our Adirondack small town life.
This is a remarkable number, but the fact it illuminates is no surprise to me, even here in the Park. My favorite restaurant here is owned by an immigrant, my favorite motel is owned by an immigrant and numerous other businesses I patronize are owned by immigrants. Many immigrants are by the very nature of their undertaking adventurous, ambitious and risk-taking. Committed to a better life, they make excellent, hard-working entrepreneurs. We need their energy and ideas.
The workshop discussed strategies to encourage immigrant entrepreneurship, including establishing a welcoming climate, providing culturally competent business training and services, ensuring programs are open to all, providing better services to under-served populations, performing outreach to chambers of commerce and other economic interest groups, improving and streamlining licensing and inspections, and providing more community education. These are all things we should do in the Adirondacks anyhow, for park residents and immigrants alike.
The bottom line is that we should not allow the current political climate to obscure the benefits to be had if we make the Adirondacks more welcoming to immigrants. It is an investment in their dreams that will be returned in spades.