Hispanic immigrants bused to Philadelphia won’t stay, even when the state needs them

The newest Pennsylvanians are helping to fire the state’s economy and enriching its culture, advocates say

By: - Thursday December 29, 2022 6:30 am

Hispanic immigrants bused to Philadelphia won’t stay, even when the state needs them

The newest Pennsylvanians are helping to fire the state’s economy and enriching its culture, advocates say

By: - 6:30 am

Migrants bused from Texas arrive in Philadelphia on 11/16/22 (Office of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney).

Migrants bused from Texas arrive in Philadelphia on 11/16/22 (Office of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney).

Since Nov. 16, just under 300 immigrants have arrived at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, said Amy Eusebio, director of the City’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

They were bused from Texas, adding Philly to the list of so-called “sanctuary cities” to which the Lone Star State’s Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has sent thousands of immigrants in an “unprecedented response to President [Joe] Biden’s open border policies,” Abbott’s office said in a November statement

Just two months after Biden was inaugurated president in January 2021, the rate of enforcement encounters on the southern border with Mexico more than doubled from 78,000 to 173,000, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data

While Abbott said he intends “to defend against an invasion along the border,” the City of Brotherly Love stands by its “welcoming policies,” which are “important because immigrants have actually been really key to the city’s repopulation efforts since post-deindustrialization,” Eusebio told the Capital-Star. 

However, these policies may not be enough for these new arrivals to stay post-pandemic, even if the state would benefit from more immigration.

‘A Christmas miracle’

The “busing strategy” is “providing much-needed relief to Texas’ overwhelmed border communities,” Abbott’s office said. As of November 2022, 13,200 migrants have been bused to Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., costing Texas $26 million, according to the Texas Tribune.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s office said their share of the buses departed from Del Rio and Eagle Pass, two small border towns where the influx in 2021 tested limited resources, disrupted daily life, and frustrated locals, the New York Times reported.

While noting “Abbott has his own agenda with doing this,” Eusebio agreed that the buses have helped take the burden off of border communities that “have operated these kinds of respite centers for decades.”

“Some of them actually have seen this a bit as a Christmas miracle,” she said, because those centers “didn’t have a way to help people get closer to their relatives.”

Now, “people are actually getting closer to where their family members actually are,” Eusebio said, “and they don’t have to pay for it.”

Coming all the way from Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and a number of other Latin American countries, “folks have seen some real harm in their journey from individuals and from governments,” she said, “but I’m glad that Philadelphia has been a soft landing place for them.”

Though some arrivals have left with family members upon arriving at the bus station, “80 percent do come with us to the welcome center,” Eusebio said, where they are registered and “offered a whole array of services from the network of nonprofit partners that my office has been coordinating.”

(Office of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney)

She said she’s heard “people say anecdotally things like, ‘This is the best I’ve slept in months,’ or, ‘ Are you guys humans or angels?’ little things like that, just because we’re offering them Colombian food, for example.”

Border communities and immigrants aren’t the only ones to benefit from a warm Philly welcome.

Will they stay?

Kenney has long sought “to attract immigrants to Philadelphia and make the city more immigrant friendly” in his work as a city councilman and promised to continue as mayor, which he declared in the Spanish-language newspaper AL DÍA during his 2015 run for the city’s top spot. 

In addition to language access policies and requirements that “city services cannot be denied to any Philadelphia resident, regardless of immigration status,” Eusebio explained that the city refuses to deputize its local police to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and “we also don’t turn people over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they don’t have a federal warrant for that person’s arrest.” 

Because she said these policies won in court and “follow the laws as they are,” she said, “That’s also why we don’t use the term ‘sanctuary’ as a city. We use ‘Welcoming City.’”

These policies made Philadelphia the “sanctuary city” that Abbott targeted in his busing strategy.

Immigrants and their families “have been essential to the growth and success of Philadelphia,” Kenney’s office said. Before Kenney took office, the massive influx of foreign-born residents from 2000 to 2016 helped the city’s population grow for the first time in half-a-century, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report by Thomas Ginsberg, senior officer for the Philadelphia Research and Policy Initiative.

“That did filter down literally to the neighborhood levels,” Ginsberg told the Capital-Star.

As for the economy, immigrants played “an outsized role in the labor market,” filling jobs in growing sectors like food, hospitality, and other personal services as the city’s economy converted to “eds and meds,” he added, using the shorthand to identify the universities and hospitals that anchor it. 

Though just nearly 15 percent of the city’s population in 2016, they accounted for 19 percent of the city’s workforce, running small businesses at twice the rate of native-born residents, the report noted. 

In his 2020, second-term inauguration speech, Kenney tied the city’s population and economic rebound to “our reputation as a Welcoming City.” 

However, the pandemic knocked the wind out of Philadelphia’s sails, as it did for many cities across the country. 

The workforce in October 2022 was 12,000 shy of its pre-pandemic levels in 2019, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data

After a precipitous drop in population not seen since 1975, as The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, the city’s employment rebound has lagged the rest of the metropolitan area and the nation, while white-collar workers continue to work from home, straining city government finances, a Pew Charitable Trusts report found.

At the same time, the mayor’s office told the Capital-Star that only about 5-10 percent of the registered arrivals from Texas plan to stay in Pennsylvania.

(Office of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney)

Despite the city’s immigrant-friendly policies, “The vast majority of people are not staying in Philly,” Eusebio said.

“We have been trying to share all that is great about Philadelphia,” she said, even trying to counter misinformation that New York’s shelter system can accommodate them. “There’s no guaranteed housing for you anywhere,” she emphasized. Nonetheless, New York remains the “ultimate beacon of hope” for many.

“As folks get to know some of the nonprofits and community partners that we’re working with, they come to like Philadelphia, and they do want to find a way here,” Eusebio added. 

“What’s challenging is that everyone who’s arriving is not yet work authorized, and many won’t get work authorization until six months after submitting an asylum application,” if they are granted asylum, she said.

Though all the arrivals have been admitted to the United States as temporary humanitarian parolees, Kenney’s office said it cannot facilitate employment opportunities for these immigrants. 

“People come here to, one, be safe, and then, two, be able to economically provide for their families,” she said. When they struggle with the latter, she’s heard some say, “I’m going to try my luck in Chicago,” or, “I’m going to go somewhere else.”

Help Wanted

That new arrivals are leaving Philly is not a good sign for Pennsylvania’s economy.

Over the next three decades, Pennsylvania’s total working-age population, those between 25 and 64, is projected to decline annually, according to the 2021 economic review by the Center for Workplace Information & Analysis (CWIA).  

Once the Baby Boomers, the youngest of whom are 57 now, leave the workforce, slow population growth means there won’t be enough young people to replace their skills in the labor market, slowly but surely decreasing the labor force.

Chart by Center for Workplace Information & Analysis
Chart by Center for Workplace Information & Analysis

These trends are already bearing fruit. The state’s economic output recovered some in 2021 and continued to rise thereafter, but it fell back to nearly pre-pandemic levels at $721 billion as of June, CWIA data showed. 

Choppy growth can be partially attributed to the persistent worker shortage often called the Great Resignation. 

While 182,000 fewer people were looking for work in 2021 compared to 2020, the review reported that 77,000 people also left the labor force, whether to retire or go to school, bringing the state’s rate of unemployment to record lows.

In September, there were roughly three jobs available for every two unemployed Pennsylvanians looking for one, based on CWIA data. As employers raise wages to compete for the scarcity of workers, inflation can follow, cutting into growth and increasing the cost of living.

“Population change is the underlying force that moves the economy,” CWIA’s review concluded. Population growth happens when births outnumber deaths or more people migrate into the state than leave.

“Most migration is what we’ve termed economic migration in terms [that] people move between places because of job opportunities,” Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Capital-Star.

“Pennsylvania is kind of a funny thing” because the eastern parts of the state near the Northeast Corridor “tend to be the places that attract people, whether they be domestic migrants or international immigrants,” he said.

“It’s a challenge in economic development for … a lot of areas in Pennsylvania, certainly here in southwestern Pennsylvania, you know, former industrial areas,” Briem said. “They were concentrated [on] one particular thing. When those industries went away, it’s actually fairly difficult to transition to some new industry.” 

“We are the only large metropolitan area in the country that has what’s called natural population decline: we have more deaths than births each year,” he said.

Though Pittsburgh converted to eds and meds over the last couple decades, “you don’t need to go very far outside of the city proper, even within Allegheny County, [to see] that plenty of areas in the Mon Valley have not transitioned,” Briem noted. 

Without the large, tradable sectors of the past, the new wave of immigration has largely skipped Pittsburgh. 

“We do rank very low in terms of the Hispanic or Latino [immigrants],” he said. “Where you see Hispanic and Latino populations tend to be elsewhere in the state.” Only 4 percent of the city of Pittsburgh’s population is Hispanic, compared to 15 percent in Philadelphia.

Though Briem noted that Pittsburgh’s investments in education and workforce development have enabled economic prosperity despite population decline, he said, “The fact that areas that are not able to bring in new workers, to include international immigrants, is certainly sort of impeding growth.”

“We want an educated population, but we also need to make sure that we’re filling” jobs that were vacated in the pandemic, Melanie Marie Boyer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told the Capital-Star. “We’re seeing that it’s not sustainable” for college students to cover those entry-level jobs at $10 an hour.” 

“It is a perfect stepping stone” for immigrants, Hispanic or otherwise, she said. “We need people who are not at those higher levels yet to fill those lower-level jobs.”

Citing the high rate of entrepreneurship and consumer spending among Hispanics in the United States, Boyer added, “if we are not including Hispanics, we are only shooting ourselves in the foot.”

That hasn’t stopped Pennsylvania from restricting illegal immigration in the past. 

In 2006, the old railroad town of Altoona, 100 miles east of Pittsburgh, passed an ordinance threatening to withdraw the business and rental licenses of those who hired or rented to illegal immigrants, the New York Times reported. 

Unlike northeastern Pennsylvania’s Hazleton, which made national headlines for its hardline policies under then-Republican Mayor Lou Barletta, Altoona hadn’t seen much immigration at all.

Opposition to illegal immigration has remained. It’s just been packaged differently. 

“Pennsylvania is a border state now with all the fentanyl pouring in here,” Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz argued in his October debate against Democrat John Fetterman, even though 2021 Census data show Pennsylvania’s shrinking population had nearly half the foreign-born population of the nation.

Oz ultimately lost to Fetterman, taking 46 percent of the vote.

Efforts have been made to welcome immigrants. In 2020, several state House representatives introduced a bill that would help individuals without a Social Security Number get a driver’s license, which would benefit the 49 percent of Pennsylvania’s farm workers who are unauthorized immigrants, the state’s Department of Agriculture estimated, as well as the state’s $132 billion farm industry.

In February 2022, Democratic state Reps. Sara Innamorato, of Allegheny County, and Joseph C. Hohenstein, of Philadelphia, introduced a bill that would create an Office of New Pennsylvanians tasked with “attracting, retaining, and embracing immigrants in our Commonwealth.”

In light of the immigrants bused to Philadelphia, Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro and Republican state Senate leadership will have the opportunity to address the economic need for immigration in the state when the next legislative session begins in January.

In this festive season, Boyer, from Pittsburgh’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said it would be “a gift … if people who are against immigration blindly would learn the contributions that specifically the Hispanic community is making to our economy, and [make] a decision based on what’s best for our country.” 

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Ethan Dodd
Ethan Dodd

Correspondent Ethan Dodd covers western Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @ethandasaxman.