ST. LOUIS — St. Louis lags behind many other U.S. metropolitan areas in attracting immigrants, but a new effort is underway to change that.
The St. Louis Mosaic Project was formally launched Thursday with an ambitious aim to make the St. Louis region the fastest-growing metropolitan area for immigration by 2020.
"The real goal is to grow the population of this region, grow the diversity of the region, which makes it a more interesting place to visit, live and work," said Kitty Radcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission and a member of the project's steering committee.
There are roughly 130,000 immigrants in the St. Louis region, which is the nation's 19th largest metropolitan area, but they make up 4.6 percent of the population, according to data from the U.S. Census. The city of St. Louis has a large Bosnian population, and officials with the Mosaic Project say the largest waves of new immigrants are coming from Mexico, China and India.
St. Louis isn't alone in its push for immigrants, who tend to be better educated and more likely to start a business than native-born Americans. Cleveland has undertaken a similar effort, and Baltimore's mayor last year relaxed the city's immigration policies.
Mosaic Project director Betsy Cohen said immigrants are 44 percent more likely to have college degrees and 166 percent more likely to have advanced degrees.
"The benefit is they are economic drivers that will increase the pie for everyone," Cohen said. "They're a growth engine for the region."
Tanya Charumilind, an attorney and secretary of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce in St. Louis, grew up in a mostly white area of St. Louis County. Her parents emigrated from Thailand to attend college and decided to stay.
Charumilind said St. Louis has a lot to offer immigrants — including top universities and major employers like Monsanto and Boeing. But getting them to stay is another issue, she said.
"If they don't get a job in one of the big companies it's tough to convince young immigrants to stay in this city when you compare it to New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles," Charumilind said. "What draws immigrants here is when they feel at home. They want to come where their people are. St. Louis really needs to kind of step up here."
St. Louis leaders actually began the effort a year ago with formation of the St. Louis Regional Immigration & Innovation Steering Committee. Since then, several hundred supporters and volunteers have agreed to help. The St. Louis County Economic Council invested $200,000 to get the effort started.
Cohen said the effort will use a variety of resources to attract immigrants. Among them, a website to begin later this year that will include buttons for 10 nationalities, each link offering details about that nationality's community in St. Louis.