Immigration and Metropolitan Revitalization in the United States

By Domenic Vitiello, University of Pennsylvania, and Thomas J. Sugrue, New York University

Recent refugee crises, xenophobic nationalism, and calls to deport unauthorized immigrants remind historians of earlier eras in which cities and nations have taken opposing stances on immigration. In the United States, the Trump administration spent much of its first 100 days attacking immigrants, refugees, and sanctuary cities, spreading fear but also losing key battles in the courts. All along, cities from New York and Philadelphia to Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have vowed to sustain their sanctuary policies. As they did in the 1980s when city leaders opposed the Reagan administration’s refusal to grant asylum to Central Americans, these Sanctuary Cities refuse to cooperate in federal deportation efforts, even in the face of threats to cut federal and state funding. Part of their calculus is that city officials know well the centrality of immigration to urban vitality in recent history. Beyond the humanitarian and moral reasons for sanctuary, many local governments see the prospect of losing immigrants as a greater threat to their cities’ economic wellbeing than the risk of losing federal funding.

Our new edited volume, Immigration and Metropolitan Revitalization in the United States, shows what is at stake for cities in disputes over immigration policy. Its ten essays by urban social historians and allied social scientists explore the deep relationship between immigration and urban transformations in recent decades in the U.S. as well as in sending communities in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The chapters – by Robert Sampson, Jacob Vigdor, Gary Painter, Marilynn Johnson, Michael Katz and Kenneth Ginsburg, Jamie Winders, Gerardo Sandoval, Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, Rachel Van Tosh, and us – illuminate how crucial immigration has been for the fortunes of cities, suburbs, and small towns worldwide.

In less than a generation, the dominant image of United States cities has shifted from urban crisis to revitalization, even if most popular accounts focus on gentrification and downtown redevelopment. Observers have mostly credited young adults, their aging parents, and the real estate developers who have increasingly chosen to reside and invest in historic city and suburban neighborhoods. We and our fellow essayists argue that immigration is even more important a force reshaping urban and suburban landscapes and economies. Immigrants and refugees, largely from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, have driven metropolitan growth, reductions in crime, the expansion of employment, and investment in housing and neighborhoods. Several essays in Immigration and Metropolitan Revitalization back up this argument with original, empirical research. Other contributors highlight immigrants’ strong presence in the booming restaurant, café, and construction industries upgrading American downtowns and adjacent neighborhoods; in American universities and technology office complexes; and among the immigrant nannies pushing strollers and nurses and health aides taking care of elderly Americans in retirement homes or helping them stay in their homes longer.

Yet migration and revitalization take different forms in different places, reflecting the larger structures of metropolitan social inequality in the United States and internationally. The authors in our volume explore this diversity in the formerly industrial cities and suburbs of New England and New Jersey; booming metropolitan Los Angeles; new immigrant destinations like Nashville, Tennessee; and migrant sending communities in Mexico and West Africa. Johnson shows how immigrant suburbs range from affluent communities of technology workers living in “McMansions” (large new homes), to working-class and poor communities where immigrants find themselves scraping by, stuck in deteriorating housing, often distant from their jobs. Katz and Ginsburg call some immigrant cities “reservations for low-wage labor” where working-class immigrants repopulate old neighborhoods and revive housing markets but overwhelmingly work in affluent suburbs. Wealthy suburbanites reap the benefits of their landscaping, construction, and domestic service labor, but do not pay for the public schools and health clinics that serve immigrants and their children where they reside.


New World Plaza, Philadelphia (photo: Domenic Vitiello)

Reflecting broader debates and divides in the social sciences, the authors in our volume offer different measures of revitalization and different perspectives on its meanings. Many of us argue with dominant definitions and explanations, especially those that emphasize global capital and gentrification as the markers of revitalization. Rather than simply equating vitality with wealth, as many scholars and policy makers do, some of us focus more on re-population, occupancy of residential and commercial spaces, and community engagement and mobilization. Half of our chapters explicitly highlight the contributions of working-class and disadvantaged immigrant communities to local and transnational community revitalization. Some of us show how working class migrants have sparked revitalization in advance of, in opposition to, or in collaboration with corporate, government, and philanthropic capital.

International migration shapes the story of every chapter, of course, but the two chapters in the volume’s final section most explicitly engage the global and transnational processes of metropolitan revitalization. In his chapter on Mexican Chicago and its hometown associations, Sandoval-Strausz frames revitalization as a hemispheric process in which U.S. cities have been tied to diverse sending communities – and influenced by conditions in migrants’ home countries, including policies like Mexico’s matching funds for migrants’ investments in infrastructure in their places of origin. “[M]etropolitan migrants and immigrants,” he writes, “have been the most important contributors to a process of revitalization that was fundamentally transnational.”

Vitiello S PHL

In South Philadelphia’s Italian Market, dating to the 1880s, the original Italian businesses sell their wares alongside vendors from Mexico, Korea, and Vietnam (photo: Domenic Vitiello)

Similarly, in a chapter on Liberian and pan-African transnational civil society in Philadelphia, Vitiello and Van Tosh trace the connections between newcomer, receiving, and sending communities’ revitalization. Countering development economists’ dismissal of migrants’ transnational projects as economically unproductive, they see local and transnational revitalization as a complex social and political process as much as one of economic recovery and development.

In the United States and the world today, we have at our disposal a variety of popular and scholarly narratives and frameworks to make sense of the relationships between migration and cities. The century-old description of immigrant settlement as a process of “invasion and succession” remains alive and, in a sense, thriving in immigration restriction advocates’ alarm over an “alien invasion.” The narrative of “costs and benefits” dominates in some corners of government, media, and the social sciences. Some chapters in our volume say a great deal about this. The call for cities to provide “sanctuary,” refusing to collaborate in deportation, suing to stop the Trump administration’s executive orders, and welcoming all immigrants and refugees regardless of their legal status, is popular on the political left. But it seems unlikely to win in Washington and most state capitals for the foreseeable future, even as it continues to influence urban policy.

The narrative of “revitalization,” we suggest, holds greater promise to sway popular and policy debates nationally, and it already has more proponents amongst city and suburban public, private, and third sector leaders. More constructive than most stances on immigration, the frame of “revitalization” emphasizes the opportunities and benefits that immigration and immigrants have created for receiving communities as much as newcomers. Unlike the frame of “costs and benefits,” it casts immigration and metropolitan development as more than a zero-sum game. Revitalization also presents important challenges and opportunities for scholarship, for – as the authors in our volume demonstrate – it is a dynamic, diverse, unequal, and highly contested phenomenon, much like immigration. While we endorse it over other narratives, especially in state and national policy debates, it remains well worth complicating through a variety of historical and other social science inquiry.

Domenic Vitiello is Associate Professor of City Planning and Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research on immigration focuses on migrant civil society, social movements, and neighborhood change. He is presently writing a book titled The Sanctuary City.

Thomas J. Sugrue is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University. His books include The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, and Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race.

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