People have tried calling Philadelphia an “international city” for decades, even as its number of immigrant residents declined and city officials proposed canceling ethnic celebrations and hosting visiting dignitaries at a much lower budget. In the 80s, 90s and even early aughts, the idea of Philly as a “global city” was a distant dream.

In 2015, the title might finally fit. The pope is visiting this fall. Tens of thousands of more immigrants live here than used to in the ‘90s, bringing the percentage of foreign-born Philadelphia residents up from 6 percent to 13 percent, about equal to the U.S. average. International business opportunities are continuing to grow. Philadelphia might even become the first in the U.S. to earn the envied distinction of being a “World Heritage” city.

Why now?

Part of the growth is likely natural. The U.S. has experienced an immigrant boom in recent years. Other reasons include the Nutter administration’s emphasis on international business and the rise of local nonprofit organizations that help immigrants.

Now, immigrants in Philadelphia are thriving with small businesses and are more likely to be college-educated than American-born Philadelphians. But they face obstacles, too. In a city rife with inequality, working immigrants are much more likely to make under $35,000 in a year than American-born Philadelphians.

Who’s moved to Philadelphia and where are they living?

The last several years, Philadelphia leaders have trumpeted the growth of the city’s population, from 1.48 million residents in 2006 to 1.56 million residents in 2014. You’ve heard a lot about how important millennials were in this resurgence. But this growth would not have been been as significant without immigrants.

Philadelphia’s foreign-born population in 1990 numbered about 100,000. It increased by more than 30,000 during the next 10 years to about 137,000, according to the Census, the first decade-long growth period for immigrants after seeing declines from 1960 to 1990. Since 2000, the pace of growth has accelerated further. Philadelphia now has about 197,000 immigrants. The number of foreign-born residents has been increasing by about 5,000 per year the last several years to 2013, the most recent year for which data is available.

Asian immigrants, at 40 percent, make up the largest group of foreign-born Philadelphians. Central American/Latin Americans come next at 30 percent, followed by Europeans at 19 percent and Africans at 10 percent.

The foreign population also features a greater share of young adults than the rest of the population here. Twenty-eight percent of Philadelphia’s native-born population is between the ages of 25 and 44. The number for foreign-born residents in the same age group is 41 percent.

Most of these immigrants are clustered in four distinct areas of Philadelphia: Center City and, most of all, the Northeast. Yeah, it’s kind of a surprise. For years, the Northeast has been one of the most homogenous, white areas of the city, home to many families of Irish, German and Polish descent. It’s now beginning to attract a substantial population of Asian immigrants while still getting plenty of European immigrants. Pew reported that four of the top six Philadelphia neighborhoods for percentage of foreign-born residents are in the Northeast.

How is Philadelphia recruiting people and businesses from abroad?

Like the rise in millennials, quantifying exactly why immigrants are moving to Philadelphia is difficult. For one thing, immigrants are coming to America, period. The foreign-born population in the U.S. increased from about 30 million to 40 million from 2000 to 2010.

Philadelphia stands out, though. The 25 percent U.S. increase is slightly less than Philadelphia’s approximate 29 percent increase (137,000 to 177,000) in the same timeframe. And from 2000 to 2013, Philadelphia is outpacing in percentage growth of immigrants the other four cities with top-five biggest populations in America, as well as Washington D.C.

A recent study from the Fiscal Policy Institute and Americas Society pointed to city government programs and several nonprofits that benefit immigrants as leading Philadelphia’s growth. Nonprofits like the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, started in 2003, offer help with learning English, starting businesses and finding jobs. Puentes de Salud, based in South Philly, helps Latino immigrants get low cost, quality health care.

“They can position them to get where they need to be faster,” says Zabeth Teelucksingh, executive director for Global Philadelphia, an organization that works with the city, businesses and nonprofits to “promote the development of an international consciousness within the region.”

To attract international businesses, Mayor Michael Nutter has embarked on visits to Britain, Italy, Israel, China and France. In 2013, he started the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs, which has a goal of assisting immigrants with education, jobs, city services and more.

Philadelphians can thank Ed Rendell for the international love, too. As governor, he created World Trade PA. Pennsylvania now has offices in 56 countries for helping promote trade and investment in the state. No other state has as large of a presence. The last five years, Pennsylvania has generated about $4.1 billion in foreign exports and investment. Teelucksingh says there’s no way to approximate how much Philadelphia is responsible for in that total but Teelucksingh adds that it’s probably a significant amount given its status as the top economic driver for the state.

Once momentum for international business starts, it can pick up. One person who moves here from a foreign country or does business here might recommend Philadelphia to friends or family, whether the industry is law or trade that goes from Philadelphia to London, Beijing and beyond — or something much smaller.

“We may be talking about the corner shop or the taxi driver who is from Turkey,” Teelucksingh continues. “All of this is important.”

What are immigrants doing in Philadelphia?

Every political candidate in the history of America seems to make it a priority to talk about small businesses. In Philadelphia, the people running the archetypal small businesses — all those corner stores and local restaurants — are often immigrants. According to the report from The Fiscal Policy Institute/Americas Society, 28 percent of these businesses (they call them “Main Street” businesses) are owned by immigrants. The immigrants thus make up a far greater share of “Main Street” business owners than they do of Philadelphia’s overall population.

These small businesses add distinct flavor to neighborhoods. They can entice other people to start businesses and then more people to move there, turning disinvested neighborhoods around.

The Fiscal Policy Institute/Americas Society report gives the Italian Market as an example. For decades, this area was predominantly Italian. It is now being populated with businesses and residences by Mexicans, Vietnamese, Indonesians and more. Bella Vista and East Passyunk, two of the neighborhoods nearest the Italian Market, have seen home values rise 25 percent and above since 2010.

Categorizing all immigrants as restaurant owners or service industry employees is wrong, though. Philadelphia’s foreign-born are more likely to have a college degree than its native-born residents, with 27 percent of them having either an undergraduate or postgraduate degree compared to 24 percent of the native-born Philadelphians. But they’re also much more likely to not have a high school degree than American-born residents.

Despite having a higher percentage of population with a college degree, salaries for immigrants are lower in Philadelphia. The median salary for working, foreign-born Philadelphians is $35,584 for men and $30,065 for women, already behind the medians for American-born Philadelphians at $43,074 and $40,133 and for men and women, respectively. Sixty-two percent of American-born Philadelphians make $35,000 or more per year. For immigrants, that number is 47 percent.

How Philadelphia can grow as an international city

For helping immigrants, Teelucksingh points to the nonprofit and city programs. Many programs are already in place and should continue to grow.

To increase international business, she says Philadelphia must get more international flights, particularly to-and-from Asia, South America and Africa. She also says it needs to step up its hosting game to foreign visitors. So if you want more foreign investment in Philadephia, be nice to the people asking you for directions.

Future city leaders will also matter. Global Philadelphia held a meet-and-greet event for City Council candidates this spring, as well as a mayoral forum.

The attendance at both events was disappointing. Lynne Abraham was the only mayoral candidate to show up on time to the mayoral forum. Nelson Diaz arrived late. Aides stood in for Tony Williams and Philadelphia’s likely next mayor, Jim Kenney (in fairness, the candidates were invited to TONS of forums).

Teelucksingh advises Philadelphia’s next leader to take the immigrant population and international trade seriously. While other issues like education and infrastructure may be more glaring, international flavor can always stimulate the economy.

“The potholes,” she says, “can be fixed with foreign money, you know.”

Featured image via Flickr, Uwishunu. Map via Pew.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...