A region without immigrants

Joe Nathanson, BridgeTower Media Newswires

In the summer of 2010 I was part of a team of economic development professionals that headed down to the Gulf Coast to meet with state and local officials and business leaders in the Destin-Fort Walton Beach area of the Florida panhandle.
We were there on a mission organized by the International Economic Development Council in response to the devastating economic impacts to local tourism and other businesses in the area as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

I checked into a multi-story resort hotel property, located not very far from the Gulf waters and beachfront, knowing that I was one of perhaps a handful of guests in the building. Reports of the oil spill despoiling the white beaches — though not visible while I was there — and balls of oil polluting the blue waters had led to wholesale cancellations of vacation stays throughout the region. Along with the hotel cancellations were the reductions in personnel. My particular hotel building was essentially without staff; the multi-day stay would be without room service.

I conjure up these images, thinking that the experience of being in a hotel without any staff might not be all that different if national policies aimed at cracking down on immigrants without authorization to be in this country were taken to extremes. Any reasonably observant traveler would readily recognize that hotel staff, from the front desk to the maids that clean your room are disproportionately from foreign lands.

Different industries

The hospitality industry is hardly unique in employing a higher proportion of foreign nationals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics a larger share of foreign-born “were working in service occupations; natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations; and in production, transportation, and material moving occupations.”

Think about construction projects around the area. How many would be understaffed if all workers other than those who spoke only English were to be removed from the scene?

Those service occupations include child care workers or home health care workers assisting older adults who make it possible for other family members to carry on with their work responsibilities.

And the foreign-born workforce is not concentrated only in those occupations requiring little or no higher education. Think of the immediate impacts of the recent travel ban, since blocked by the federal courts, on highly trained scientists, medical specialists and graduate students from a small number of predominantly Muslim countries who were not able to return to their research facilities, hospitals or universities.

Also, consider your own experiences in our major hospitals and universities. How many of the trained nursing staff, the physicians, medical residents or engineers are from the Far East, the Asian sub-continent, the Carib­bean or Africa?

To demonstrate the impact of foreign-born workers on our local economies, a number of communities around the nation, including the Washington, D.C., area, recently organized a “Day Without Immigrants.” I
The distinction between those from abroad who are here legally and those without the necessary documentation is a fine point, not always honored by the actions of some members of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Custom Enforcement agencies. The ill-advised practices reported, whether because of poor directives from above or inadequate training, are making the country inhospitable to foreign workers, students and visitors and the losses are just beginning to be tallied.

In the nearly seven years since the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf, the environmental effects are still being studied and the long-term effects are as yet unknown. Ironically, the economic fortunes of the region’s tourism industry have turned up, due to the heavy advertising of the region as a tourist destination made possible by BP restitution funds.

We don’t know the extent of immigration enforcement in the months and years ahead. But even the threat of large-scale removal of undocumented immigrants from the local economy has ripple effects throughout the community. It is less likely that any area so impacted would rebound as readily as the Gulf Coast region.


Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates, Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He writes a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at urbaninfo@ comcast.net.