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To Fill in Gaps, Shrinking Cities Seek a New Wave of Foreigners

By ERIC SCHMITT

PITTSBURGH, May 25 -- A small but growing number of cities with declining populations are embracing new strategies to attract immigrants to replenish shrinking neighborhoods, fill labor shortages and inject greater ethnic diversity in their communities.

A number of such efforts are under way here in Pittsburgh, where the population fell by 9.5 percent in the 1990's, to 334,563, and the immigrant population in the metropolitan area grew by only 9,000. Four local groups were awarded $800,000 in foundation grants in the past month to help lure immigrants with jobs, encourage foreign students to stay after graduation and teach the community about international diversity. Separately, Allegheny County, which includes the city, established a task force this week to study how to entice more immigrants.

Across the state, Philadelphia, which lost 4 percent of its population since 1990, is considering a plan that would create an "Office of New Philadelphians" patterned after similar offices in New York and Boston that help new foreign arrivals. The plan, whose champion, Councilman James F. Kenney, is seeking financing from private foundations, would also promote the city in American consulates abroad and require more gates at the Philadelphia airport for flights to and from Asia and Latin America.

"We've got a people problem," said Grant Oliphant, planning director for the Heinz Endowments, a private, independent foundation in Pittsburgh that gave the grants. "Regional economies today are heavily dependent on people and people skills, and it's difficult to attract new businesses in a region that's losing people."

It was not that long ago that many city officials viewed immigrants as a drain on public services and that workers saw them as competition for jobs. But the booming economy of the late 1990's made immigrant labor at all skill levels a valued commodity, and foreign-born residents, typically with larger, younger families, helped restock urban neighborhoods that shrank as the middle class moved to the suburbs.

The fledgling efforts to attract immigrants have just begun in most cities and are part of broader revitalization plans. They are partly in response to new data from the 2000 census showing that immigrants are fueling the growth in the nation's fastest-growing cities, like Charlotte, N.C., and Las Vegas, and offsetting the flight to the suburbs in many others, like Chicago and New York.

While it is too early to predict the programs' success, planners here are also watching how other cities retain their foreign newcomers. In Louisville, Ky., whose population fell 5 percent in the 1990's, a new city office of international and cultural affairs plans to post a list of interpreters on the Internet by the end of next month for community service providers to use.

Louisville officials say their population would have dropped even more had it not been for the roughly 20,000 immigrants and refugees, from countries like Cuba, Somalia and Vietnam, who came in the 1990's, tripling the immigrant population.

In Albuquerque, the City Council passed a bill last December declaring the city "immigrant-friendly," and appropriated $50,000 to create a resource program for immigrants. An influx of Hispanics has contributed to a 16 percent increase in the city's population since 1990.

But even as cities contemplate how to reverse population declines, demographers expressed caution about whether civic leaders could influence immigration patterns.

"The research doesn't clearly tell us what causes what, meaning, Does the presence of immigrants lead to job creation or do jobs attract the immigrants?" said Jeffrey S. Passel, a demographer with the Urban Institute, a social-policy research organization in Washington.

Even if cities can attract immigrants with jobs, housing and ethnic enclaves, some critics express fear that they could strain city services.

"Politicians who see immigration as a solution to their region's viability are shortsighted," said Sharon McCloe Stein, executive director of Negative Population Growth Inc., a population control advocacy group in Washington. "Our country is overpopulated now. What we need is better distribution of the people we have."

Civic leaders here dismiss the criticism, but acknowledge they face a stiff challenge in recruiting immigrants to Pittsburgh, one of the nation's least racially and ethnically diverse cities.

Pittsburgh ranked 25th among metropolitan areas in the number of immigrants gained in the 1990's: only 8,935 people, or 0.4 percent of the area's total population, according to a census data analysis by the Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

By comparison, the immigrant population of the Miami and New York metropolitan areas increased by 337,174 and 974,599, respectively, from 1990 to 1999. That net increase in immigrants amounted to 15.5 percent of Miami's population in 1999 and 11.2 percent of New York's.

Once synonymous with a steel industry powered by waves of Italian, Irish, German and Eastern European workers, Pittsburgh has reinvented its economy since the big steel mills collapsed in the 1980's.

But the city's outdated smoky image has dissuaded many immigrants, business leaders say, and thousands of jobs in new health care, biotechnology and computer software industries go begging.

Moreover, demographers say, it is difficult to attract immigrants if there is not already a large foreign community. Only 2 percent of the Pittsburgh area's population is foreign-born , and many of those people are elderly. Of the country's most- populous counties, Allegheny County has the second-oldest population, behind Palm Beach County, Fla.

There are pockets of ethnic diversity. The Squirrel Hill neighborhood is home to many of the city's 3,000 Russians. There is also a vibrant community of Indian medical and high-tech professionals.

Only 1.3 percent of Pittsburgh's population is Hispanic, according to the 2000 census. That is well below the 3.2 percent share in Pennsylvania and 12.5 percent nationwide.

The demise of the steel industry, for which overseas competition is largely blamed, has left many Pittsburghers wary of new foreigners, immigrants here say.

"The people at the top, in business and government, are very receptive, but the general population is still not very open or receptive to immigrants," said Anju Chopra, 32, who came to the United States from India as a student in 1992, and moved here six years ago from Florida with her husband, Sanjay, 33, an executive of a small software company.

"Still, this area has been very good to us," said Ms. Chopra, an immigration and economic development consultant who earned a master's degree from Carnegie Mellon University here and is expecting the couple's second child next month. Ms. Chopra said she and her husband both recently applied for United States citizenship.

To help assess immigrants' needs, the Heinz Endowments has given $150,000 to the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh to promote international understanding; $200,000 to El Centro Hispano-Latino, a group that recruits Hispanic workers and their families; $200,000 to the Pittsburgh Council for International Visitors, to encourage the 4,000 foreign students here to stay after their studies, and $250,000 to the Center for Competitive Workforce Development at Duquesne University, to study how immigrants can fit into the workplace.

Kenneth B. Rodriguez, 58, El Centro's founder, who moved here in 1993 from Connecticut, acknowledged that the process was slow. He said he had recruited six men this year from Mexico, El Salvador and Puerto Rico for landscaping or welding jobs that started at $10 to $12 an hour.

Community leaders agreed that it would take a concerted effort to promote practical incentives and overcome ingrown suspicions.

"There aren't any magic bullets," said Linda Ehrenreich, associate executive director of the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Pittsburgh, which has resettled 2,000 refugees here in the past decade. "It will take time and it will be controversial."

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