Friday, November 19, 2004

The cost of moving 

I tend to believe in immigration as largely helpful to the receiving country. I have a student working on a paper currently looking at illegal immigration and its effects on unemployment rates in the states that receive them. She is including in her test a feedback mechanism that determines how immigrants decide where to move. So far she cannot detect any effect in either direction, which fits my priors, but we're still testing.

St. Cloud is having a human rights day, and with its substantial Somali immigrant community, as in much of the upper Midwest, the mayor and local leaders have decided to focus on their circumstances. The program centers on the "Lewiston letter," a two year old incident from Maine described here in the Washington Post.

Now the city's mayor, Laurier T. Raymond, has asked the Somali elders to put a stop to that immigration. In a public letter earlier this month, Raymond warned of the toll taken by so many immigrants on the city's finances and cultural fabric, and asked the elders to help stanch the flow.

"This large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all," Raymond wrote. "I am well aware of the legal right of a U.S. citizen to move anywhere . . . but it is time for the Somali community to exercise discipline.

"Please pass the word," he concluded. "We have been overwhelmed . . . our city is maxed out financially, physically and emotionally."

I'm a native of Manchester, NH, and my mother is the product of the same kinds of families as inhabit Lewiston Maine -- her family can trace roots back to the area to the 18th century. That area has taken in many immigrants over the years, including my father's Armenian parents, Bosnian refugees, Carribean families from Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, etc. The portrayal of Lewiston as a bunch of inbred unenlightened millworkers is ignorant of the history of northern New England.

So I wonder how informed our local leaders are when, in their flyer for their event, they state,
When Mayor Larry Raymond published a letter asking the newly arrived Somali immigrants to ask their friends and families not to move to the Lewiston, the heartbeat of racism that thumps under the skin of some people was revealed. Fast-paced and sometimes unrelenting, it draws the viewer in to the personalities and circumstances that built up in a town like St. Cloud and, forcing us to examine the dynamics in our own town and our future response to intolerance.
The letter reveals no such thing. It reveals a political leader forced by state and federal government to provide services that the city may not be able to afford, and seeks to find a way to escape the crushing burden. There are certainly some who will point to this event with rank nativism and make the issue cultural. Yet by the article itself, we can see some of the reasons are also economic:

"They found Lewiston," Ali said. "They check the crime statistics, they see the last policeman killed here was in 1882. They see the unemployment rate is low. There is housing and close family values like Somalia.

"The young men [who first scouted Lewiston] tell us: 'This is a dream place.' "

So people move for economic benefits, be it my Armenian grandfather looking for millwork in 1910 or Somali immigrants ninety years later. And southern Maine was and is a dream place. It's also a place with high welfare benefits, which some qualified for after being denied federal relocation monies. The Post article thinks $450,000 in relocation costs to the city miniscule compared to its $70 million budget, but cities run fairly tight budgets and cannot borrow. The city administrator has written a paper about the issues surrounding this management.

I have no idea how much St. Cloud currently spends on relocation of Somali families. But considering those costs in setting policy seems only reasonable.