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The upstate region must be globally competitive--for workers

Policy Wonk
Rochester Business Journal
August 10, 2012

During the Olympics, we freely show unabashed pride in our native sons and daughters. The Rochester region cheers Jenn Suhr's triumph over her Russian rival in the pole vault and Abby Wambach's success in soccer against Canada and other rivals. Yes, some of our Olympians are transplants, immigrants to our nation. But most were born here.
While a burst of nativism is excusable during the Olympics, anti-immigration sentiment doesn't serve our economy well. Asked by local businessman Dutch Summers to explore why Canada's Golden Horseshoe-anchored by Toronto-has prospered and grown while Upstate New York has languished, the Center for Governmental Research concluded that immigration policy is a powerful contributing factor.
The difference in both population and job growth is startling. From 1991 to 2010, the Golden Horseshoe (from the Niagara River around the end of Lake Ontario through Hamilton, Toronto and Oshawa) grew 31 percent, adding nearly 2 million people to its resident population. Upstate New York-defined here as 14 counties stretching from Erie to Madison-grew not at all.
Very modest growth in the Rochester metropolitan area was fully offset by population loss in metro Buffalo. Although the city of Toronto grew 5 percent through the period, the central cities of the upstate region all lost population: Buffalo lost 16 percent, Syracuse 10 percent, Rochester 7 percent. Job growth from 1996 to 2010 was 34 percent in the Golden Horseshoe and only 3 percent in Upstate New York.
Immigration policy is almost certainly a contributing factor. In terms of sheer volume, Canada admits twice as many immigrants as the United States on a per-capita basis. On average over the past five years, Canada admitted 7.5 immigrants per 1,000 residents while the United States admitted only 3.5.
More to the point, however, Canada is much more willing to allow the immigration of individuals who bring a particular skill or are well-educated. In 2011, only 13 percent of permanent immigrants into the United States were "economic immigrants," individuals granted permanent residency by virtue of their skills, abilities or educational attainment. In Canada, it was a whopping 63 percent, 10 times the U.S. rate per capita.
Fortunately, New York has the good sense to view foreign immigration in a positive light. This could be an instinct toward self-preservation, of course, as New York has lost more residents to other states than any other state. The Census Bureau estimates that 1.8 million New York residents relocated to other states from 2000 to 2011, about 9 percent of the state's 2000 population. Next closest is Louisiana, which lost about 7 percent of its 2000 population to domestic outmigration.
New York welcomed about 920,000 immigrants from 2000 to 2011, the seventh-largest inflow among the states, adjusted for population. Nevada and Florida both led the nation, each admitting about 6 percent of their 2000 population as legal immigrants. And we have the good sense to encourage the flow, welcoming immigrants by policy and practice. Gov. Andrew Cuomo just announced the creation of the state Office of New Americans, an effort to support immigrants in their new lives in the United States and, of course, New York. The Empire State also allows undocumented immigrants who satisfy certain conditions to qualify for in-state tuition at SUNY and CUNY institutions. We want to welcome immigrants and encourage them to make a home in our state, not join the ranks of those departing for other parts of the nation.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also is involved in the immigration issue as co-chairman of the Partnership for a New American Economy. This is a group of mayors and business leaders working to promote a flexible immigration policy that is responsive to economic conditions.
We need only look across Lake Ontario for a shining example of the benefits of freer immigration. In a vigorously competitive world economy, we compete not just for customers but for the best economic contributors. Let's take a page from Canada's immigration book and open our doors to the world's best minds and most productive workers.

Kent Gardner is chief economist and chief research officer of the Center for Governmental Research Inc.8/10/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

What You're Saying 

brad jones at 9:04:10 AM on 8/20/2012
Kent Gardner is absolutely correct that the concept of "economic immigrants" is one of the factors in the success of the Golden Horseshoe. Policymakers there understand that immigrants with market competitive skills have a positive impact on economic growth and prosperity. U...  Read More >

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