A compelling portrait of contemporary immigration to St. Louis appeared this week in the New York Times. The gist of the article is that St. Louis, a city that has floundered economically over the past few decades, is beginning to experience new economic and social growth. Part of the reason is the entrance of a more diverse labor force of migrants, who work in industries like manufacturing, carpentry, and international business. It’s a beautiful story, one that -- as the article mentions -- runs counter to the common xenophobic sentiments that dominate mainstream discourse on immigration.
I do, however, have a slight beef with the title and direction of the article -- “Work Force Fueled by Highly Skilled Immigrants” -- which seem to misrepresent its content. Toward the tail end of the article, the author mentions Sandy Tsai, a Chinese American entrepreneur whose business slowed because of a scarcity of low-wage workers. It was the influx of immigrants like these that was integral to the revitalization of industries in St. Louis, in addition to those who were fortunate enough to come educated and skilled.
So while I do think that the article is important, I also think it’s problematic. Yes, immigrants to the US do sometimes come highly skilled, and that’s great for our economy. But singling them out pits their accomplishments against the contributions of those migrants who don’t have the advantages of education and wealth and are, by the author’s own account, just as important.
Some brilliant, brilliant people in the field of immigration research -- Michael Piore and Douglas Massey, for instance -- have argued that migration occurs in part out of the necessity of highly wealthy nations to hunt for third world workers to fill unstable, low-wage jobs. This article goes a long way, I think, in showing how such workers can fuel economic growth in the United States. But if we focus just on wealthy immigrants, who aren’t generally the target of anti-immigrant sentiment, we risk eliding the importance of diverse flows of labor and exacerbating those hostilities ourselves.