Globalism, Not Nativism, Made America's Cities Great

As Los Angeles shows, the cities with the most immigrants also perform best economically.
By Scott Beyer | Dec 21, 2018 |
By Scott Beyer | Dec 21, 2018 |

Glendale, CA - I could tell when first arriving in Glendale that this wasn’t a stereotypical American suburb. I’d reserved a place here for the Los Angeles portion of my cross-country trip, after hearing that it was a cheap and amenity-rich city close to central L.A. But what has immediately jumped out is the diversity of this 30-square-mile, 200,000-person city, with Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, European and Caucasus communities functioning side by side. All the same, it’s a thriving city that performs above-average economically and culturally. Thus Glendale, like greater Los Angeles and so many other immigrant-oriented U.S. cities, is an example of the globalist model that makes America great; and a counterpunch to the nativism being peddled by President elect Donald Trump.

The city, which borders L.A. proper and is 5 miles north of DTLA, first grew in the 1920s as a streetcar suburb for middle-class whites. It has since become an immigrant hub, including for ones fleeing persecution. The most notable group is Armenians, who are a quarter of the population. Following Turkey’s attempted 1915 genocide of Armenians, the refugees fled into neighboring Asian countries, but many have since moved to California, namely Glendale, which is the Armenian-American capital. Their presence is common inside Armenian restaurants, coffee shops and churches, some of which function without English.

Armenians are far from Glendale’s only immigrant group, though. 23% of the population is Iranian; there is a 9% share, respectively, of Mexicans, Koreans and Filipinos; and a 4% share of Lebanese and Salvadorans. My two roommates are from Russia and Peru, and few of the people I encounter fit the profile of what mainstream America would consider an Anglo-American, much less a California blonde. Overall, a whopping 55% of Glendale’s population is foreign born, rivaling Miami, at 61%, as the nation’s most global city. The median household income here is slightly higher than the national average, and according to FBI statistics, Glendale is the safest of America’s 100 mid-sized cities.

(On a typical Glendale block, an Armenian bakery sits next to a Lebanese falafel joint / Scott Beyer)

Glendale thus mirrors the county in which it sits, Los Angeles County, where the share of foreign-born population is 34%. Amazingly, 10% of the county’s 10 million people are illegal immigrants, and 20% of children here have at least one illegal parent. The foreign-born percentage is even higher in Los Angeles proper, helping it rival cities like New York and Miami as America's de facto immigrant capital.

Have these informal and global qualities driven Los Angeles into dysfunction, as Donald Trump and other nativists might fear? Hardly.

While the Los Angeles area performs poorly on some metrics—for example slow population growth rates and high unemployment—this has less to do with immigrants than the city and state’s punitive tax and regulatory climate. Housing regulations, in particular, are escalating the prices and driving many demographics—immigrants included—away from the metro, helping explain the downturn.

But Los Angeles’ innate status as an economic powerhouse still overshadows these recent trends. The metro has the nation’s 2nd-highest GDP, accounting for 5% of national GDP, but only 4% of U.S. population. This discrepancy is because median household income in the metro is $60,514, about $8,000 higher than the national average. Los Angeles was recently named America's safest big city. And its cultural bona fides--as a melting pot for food, music, style and entertainment from around the world--is inarguable. First- and second-generation immigrants make up a vast majority of the area, and have thus been instrumental in building this global megacity. Based on certain metrics, one might even argue that they’ve had an outsized role. According to data from USC and elsewhere, immigrants in Los Angeles have higher rates of entrepreneurship, marriage, and male workforce participation; “long term” immigrants, defined as those here over 30 years, have far higher homeownership rates than natives; and while there is an income gap between natives and immigrants, it closes the longer an immigrant is here, suggesting that L.A. remains a place of upward mobility.

Los Angeles isn’t an aberration; American cities as a rule seem to live or die based on whether they attract immigrants. This was reported by urban economist Richard Florida, who published a list comparing the 10 metros with the biggest and smallest shares of foreign-born.

“The top-ten U.S. metros…reads like a who’s who of America’s most economically vibrant and dynamic metros: Miami, San Jose (the heart of Silicon Valley), Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Houston (America’s energy capital), Washington, D.C., and Trump’s own New York City. The bottom ten feature harder-hit Rustbelt metros like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Buffalo.” These latter cities, which have foreign-born population shares of under 7%, and are among America’s leading examples of urban decline, are generally scattered throughout the Midwest, a hotbed of nativism and Trump support.

Richard Florida was only drawing correlations, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to deduce causation. If one macro-trend has defined urban American success or failure the last century, it’s been the divide between cities that, like Los Angeles, attract population and thrive economically; and ones that, like Cleveland and Buffalo, lose population, becoming hollowed-out and poor. Immigrants, like domestic migrants, drive these trends, and there’s little reason why a distinction should be drawn between the two groups.

Which brings me to Trump. A certain element of the American public seemed to believe that Trump’s anti-immigration stances during the campaign were less his personal convictions, than an effort to allure the GOP base. But it appears he was serious all along. Since election night, he has appointed Jeff Sessions—the most notoriously anti-immigrant U.S. Senator—as Attorney General; has threatened to cut funding from so-called ‘sanctuary cities'; and plans to deport 3 million illegals with criminal records, including those who have been cited for speeding and jaywalking.

Many prominent urban officials nationwide have said they won’t cooperate with Trump. As Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told CNN, “currently 63% of our population are immigrants or the children of immigrants. And we’ve seen that be a core part of our economy.” Deportations would be “bad for the economy, bad for our social fabric, and bad for the security of our streets,” since it would stifle communication between L.A.’s police and its immigrant communities. L.A. police chief Charlie Beck concurred that “we are not going to work in conjunction with Homeland Security on deportation efforts. That is not our job, nor will I make it our job.”

Even for nativists who dislike the cultural changes brought by immigration, it would be hard to argue with the rationale behind Garcetti’s and other mayors’stances. These officials aren't opposing mass deportation because they are social justice idealists, but because they know it would have catastrophic economic effects. Along with the 1 million illegal immigrants in L.A. County, there is an estimated 500,000 in New York City, 500,000 in the Bay Area, 400,000 in the Houston area, and 260,000 in greater Miami. Impose mass deportation upon these—some of the nation’s most economically dynamic—metros, and the federal government would be ripping out huge portions of their workforce, customer base and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The broader nativist posture, meanwhile, could send a hostile and unwelcome message even for America's legal immigrants, such as Glendale’s Armenians. The posture ignores the benefits of population growth—immigrant or otherwise—much less what caused the variegated success throughout different parts of the country. If Trump wants to make America great again, he might study the areas that are doing best, many of which became that way by embracing globalism.

[This article was originally published by Forbes.]