The Changing Face of the Eighth District

October 01, 1999
By  Glenda J Wilson Tiffany Guynes

Throughout the 1990s, an increasing number of immigrants and refugees have chosen to settle in the middle of the United States, bringing ethnic diversity to many of our cities and towns. People from all over the world—Vietnam, Bosnia, Mexico, Laos, Cuba, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Pakistan—are making their homes in the Eighth District. What factors are contributing to this change? In states like Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, immigrants are attracted to the affordable housing and the low cost of living. Immigrants view our region as a good place for families and an opportunity to create a better life for themselves.

It is difficult to estimate the exact number of immigrants settling in cities like St. Louis and Louisville. In addition to new immigrants and refugees who come because of the presence of resettlement organizations, there have been substantial changes in the geographic distribution of immigrants in the United States since 1990.

The secondary migration of immigrants from coastal states toward mid-America is just as difficult to quantify. For example, since the mid-1990s, Bosnians have come in the tens of thousands to south St. Louis, and they are spreading the word to Bosnian enclaves throughout the United States that St. Louis is a good place to buy a home. St. Louis is now home to the second-largest Bosnian refugee population in the United States behind Chicago.

A Melting Pot of Jobs

The addition of these diverse ethnic groups is good for the immigrants who have settled here, as well as the neighborhoods where they have settled. Throughout the Eighth District, immigrants are filling jobs at a time when our region is experiencing a labor shortage.

Adequate entry-level jobs, such as the poultry industry in northwest Arkansas, are available, and employers are looking for workers to fill these positions. In St. Louis, immigrants and refugees are finding jobs as machine operators in manufacturing, as hotel workers and in some high-technology industries. Kentucky and southern Indiana have seen immigrants moving from migrant tobacco jobs to more stable employment in restaurants, farms and factories. Others are becoming teachers and researchers.

Some are starting their own businesses, such as tailoring, restaurants, video rentals and television repair. In fact, Jan Huneke, International Institute's business development coordinator, says, "For every job an immigrant takes, he or she ends up generating another 1.5 jobs because they create markets and start so many businesses."

In addition to spurring economic activity, immigrants are reviving some communities, often buying homes and opening businesses in the same neighborhood. Cultural life can then be enhanced, as a small percentage of foreign-born residents bring diversity to a community by being visible through the businesses they run or work they do.

For example, restaurant patrons in cities like Louisville now may choose Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Korean or another foreign cuisine—prepared by a local cook who grew up a world away.

Nonprofits Lend a Hand

Resettlement and other nonprofit organizations in our region help immigrants overcome the unique barriers they encounter. The International Institute of Metropolitan St. Louis, World Communities of Louisville, Centro Hispanio in central Arkansas and Catholic Charities of Memphis all offer aids such as English classes, translation, housing and employment assistance, as well as social services. The International Institute alone provides services to approximately 6,000 immigrants and refugees a year, including job placement for approximately 1,000 people in each of the past three years.

Breaking the Banking Barrier

Many immigrants come from countries where they had a mistrust of banks; therefore, they may have a basic fear of banks in the United States. In addition, for non-English speaking immigrants, language can create another barrier if banks do not have bilingual tellers, customer service representatives and loan officers. Some banks are serving immigrant populations in their market areas, helping them understand basic banking services and providing staff that speak their native language. (See sidebar)

Reaching out to immigrants in their service areas is one way banks can increase their customer base while gaining profitable business. For example, loan activity for one branch of Southern Commercial Bank in St. Louis is up 200 percent in the past two years—from 30 loans a month to 90—with almost all of its new business coming from the Bosnian community.

Here are some ways banks may better serve immigrants and refugees in their communities:

  • Hire ethnic employees.
  • Offer bilingual services.
  • Show sensitivity to the level of understanding English-speaking immigrants may have of the language, and don't tease them about it.
  • Translate documents into languages other than English.
  • Explain the banking system to new customers (i.e., a customer may transact business at bank branches other than the one where the account was opened) or, better yet, offer classes in banking services.
  • Provide first-time homebuyer-assistance programs.
  • Temporarily waive fee(s) on deposit accounts opened with refugees' cash assistance.
  • Relax underwriting criteria to consider rent and utility payments as credit history.
  • Do not hold job changes against an applicant if the job change represents an upgrade in salary.

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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