Has the recent tidal wave of immigration hurt cities? A study that I recently conducted for the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution answers an emphatic no. Drawing on data from the Census Bureau, the study assesses the impact of immigrants on the 85 most populous U.S. cities (those with populations of 200,000 or more) by contrasting conditions over the period 1980-90 in those with the highest and the lowest concentrations of foreign-born residents.
The study's findings challenge much of the conventional wisdom about the economic impact of immigrants. The 15 cities with the largest jump in their immigrant populations in the eighties—places like San Jose, Houston, and Miami—enjoyed job growth of 32 percent over the decade. At the other end of the spectrum, low-immigration cities like St. Louis, Toledo, and Buffalo saw a mere 7 percent rise. Cities with the highest concentrations of immigrants in 1980 saw per-capita income grow 7 percent faster over the period than their immigrant-poor counterparts, and by 1990 residents of such cities were 15 percent richer on average.
The social picture is no less dramatic. Cities with the smallest immigrant populations in 1990 had a 20 percent higher rate of poverty than immigrant-rich cities, a result of having almost twice the rate of growth in poverty over the preceding decade. Much the same goes for crime, with immigrant-poor cities experiencing a 20 percent higher crime rate by the early nineties.
Of course, these numbers leave a critical question unanswered: did immigrants help these cities prosper or did these prosperous cities simply attract immigrants? But the study does refute the idea that immigration is a chief culprit in our urban woes. Whatever problems New York and Los Angeles might share with the likes of Detroit and Milwaukee, their newest residents from abroad are not to blame.