Asked about immigration reform under President Donald Trump, Cathryn Miller-Wilson thinks about a family of Syrians she met at PHL last September. They were refugees who had just arrived in the United States: A mother, father, grandmother, aunt, two infants and a young boy who was about 7 years old. None of the family spoke English, aside from a few broken phrases from the mother.
Fast forward to a couple months ago. Miller-Wilson, executive director of the immigration services nonprofit HIAS Pennsylvania, saw the family again at an event. The young boy pointed at her and said, in what Miller-Wilson calls unaccented English, “I know you. I saw you at the airport.”
“That’s what we see every day,” Miller-Wilson said.
If they’d tried now, that family likely couldn’t settle in Philadelphia. First off, refugees from Syria are not allowed to move to the U.S. under Trump’s temporary travel ban. And even if they attempted to come to America by other immigration means, they could also face trouble. If the Raise Act gets passed, prospective immigrants who aren’t fluent in English and aren’t college graduates will have a tougher time entering America.
Gone would be that success story and perhaps many more for Philadelphia. From 2005 to 2015, Philadelphia’s immigrant population increased from 170,000 to 200,000.
The Raise Act —which is unlikely to be passed in its current version — and confusion over the travel ban affecting refugees from six predominantly Muslim countries could end up curtailing some of the progress. Here are three major ways Trump’s policies have either affected or could affect immigration in Philadelphia if some of his favored legislation passes.
The Raise Act’s potential economic hit
In the last several years, between 10,000 and 15,000 immigrants have moved into Philadelphia from all over the world. One purpose of the Raise Act is to cut immigration by half. If Philly was affected at an equal proportion as the rest of the country, it could see closer to 7,000 immigrants arriving every year.
Such a drastic loss of immigrants could mean an end to the slight population increases the city has experienced the last several years, no further expanding of the tax base and a small hit to the economy. The New American Economy estimated immigrants in the Philadelphia area have $13.5B in annual spending power. Years of declining numbers of immigrants would reduce that total.
Peter Gonzales, president & CEO of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, said somewhere around 17 percent of immigrants are entrepreneurs, about twice the percentage of native-born U.S. citizens. In Philly, immigrants have started a variety of businesses.
“We would be losing all of that robust entrepreneurial activity that has been completely transforming our city’s commercial corridors in the last 10 years,” Gonzales said.
The Raise Act would cut the number of immigrants in part by setting up a merit-based system. Prospective immigrants would have a greater chance of getting into the United States — and Philadelphia — if they met certain criteria, such as English fluency, having a degree or having a high-paying job. This proposed system would allow fewer immigrants to get into the country who might not meet some of those standards but have family members in the U.S.
There’s no easy way of gauging exactly how many Philly immigrants get into the country through family-based petitions. Miller-Wilson said our city sees immigrants who fit into that category, as well as refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants with advanced degrees.
But the number is likely high. Gonzales said the Welcoming Center did a study in 2014 asking the Philly’s immigrant population why they chose the city. The most prominent answer was they knew family or friends who lived in Philadelphia. He said the diversity visa lottery has also been key in bringing immigrants to the city who have either friends or family here.
As a whole, Philly’s immigrant population is actually more educated than its American-born population. Census data from 2015 show 31 percent of city immigrants have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 27 percent of American-born Philly residents.
Since 2010, Philadelphia has either been getting more immigrants with college degrees than previously or more immigrants are completing degrees after arriving in the country. According to the Census, 45 percent of immigrants who’ve arrived after 2010 have a degree. Only 28 percent who arrived between 2000 and 2009 have one.
But educational attainment varies greatly for Philadelphia immigrants from different areas of the world. Those from European, Asian and African countries are all much more likely to hold a college degree or be enrolled in college than those from Latin American countries. Latinos could thus stand a lesser chance of moving to Philadelphia if Trump’s policies move forward.
|Immigrant origin||Pct. with college degree (in percent)|
“We’re slightly less worried about this proposal because it is so clearly ridiculous,” Miller-Wilson said. “But certainly the moves the administration has been making — attacking immigrants and refugees and basing policy statements on things that are simply untrue — are very concerning.”
“One of the things the mayor wants to make very clear is nothing’s changed in Philly,” said Miriam Enriquez, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. “The policies we had before Trump are still the policies.”
The refugee effect
Refugee immigration to Philadelphia after Trump’s ban on refugees from six Muslim-majority countries hasn’t actually gone down compared to last year. Not yet, anyway. Some 327 refugees arrived in Philadelphia between January and June this year. In 2016, during the same timeframe, 308 arrived.
But those numbers don’t tell the entire story. Local refugee resettlement groups are expecting fewer arrivals this year than they anticipated before Trump’s ban. HIAS, for instance, expected to settle 250 refugees and now expects that number to be 200 at most.