Pittsburgh Tries To Attract Enterprising Immigrants And Refugees Pittsburgh is the latest Rust Belt city hoping to lure high-skilled immigrants into its labor force by helping refugees and other immigrants land the kind of jobs they held back home.
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Pittsburgh Tries To Attract Enterprising Immigrants And Refugees

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Pittsburgh Tries To Attract Enterprising Immigrants And Refugees

Pittsburgh Tries To Attract Enterprising Immigrants And Refugees

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Immigration has been in the news a lot this year - failed attempts at immigration reform, impassioned debates over the future of people in this country illegally. Well, as this year approaches its end, here's a story of a city doing anything it can to draw immigrants. The city of Pittsburgh, long known for steel mills, a sense of community and an incredible work ethic, is hoping immigrants can help define the future. Keystone Crossroad's Irina Zhorov reports.

IRINA ZHOROV, BYLINE: When Ammar Nsaif was 8 years old in Iraq, he often thought about his future wife and kids, about the car and house and business he'd own. As an adult, he became an electrical engineer and made his 8-year-old self proud.

AMMAR NSAIF: Before the war, I did many things. My cousins, my friends, my neighbors, they know Ammar. He's working, make business. I did very well.

ZHOROV: He lost everything when he fled Baghdad suddenly in 2006. Nsaif, who's 39, says he received a death threat from terrorists over his work with an American company. They'd already killed an older brother.

NSAIF: I thought I will go back to my country after one or two months once everything be safe.

ZHOROV: Instead, he spent two years in Syria, two years in the Netherlands and two years in Jordan. Then he and his family received refugee status and came to Pittsburgh - his final stop.

NSAIF: That, I think, has to be the last station. So tired. I'm done.

ZHOROV: Those words are music to Pittsburgh's ears because Pittsburgh has a plan.

BETTY CRUZ: It's 20,000 new residents over the next 10 years. And a portion of that, if we're doing it right, should be immigrants.

ZHOROV: Betty Cruz heads Welcoming Pittsburgh, a new initiative to attract and retain newcomers. Studies show immigrants start businesses at a higher rate than nonimmigrants, and they can raise home values when they move into neighborhoods.

The Brookings Institution's Audrey Singer says programs like Welcoming Pittsburgh come as a reaction to failed immigration reform but also because depopulated industrial cities see immigrants as an economic development tool.

AUDREY SINGER: A lot of these places are looking for two things - economic activity and population. Immigrants and refugees are often looked at as a really dynamic group.

ZHOROV: Pittsburgh is just the latest Rust Belt city trying to boost its 7 percent foreign-born demographic. That's pretty low for an urban area. Philadelphia has a similar program - Chicago, St. Louis, Columbus, Dayton -about 40 cities nationwide in all.

Barbara Murock is with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. She says Pittsburgh has some catching up to do.

BARBARA MUROCK: Back in the 80s, when immigration was starting to flow into many other large cities, we were having a real economic crisis here with the steel mills going down. So now that we are starting to have an inward migration, we're really just developing the awareness.

ZHOROV: Another thing, the Rust Belt's immigrants are very educated. In a report, Brookings' Singer found that Pittsburgh has the biggest ratio of high-skilled immigrants in the nation. So people like Nsaif need additional help navigating the process of transferring credentials - things like translating and evaluating degrees and coursework to figure out the quickest way forward.

SINGER: It's kind of like a maze. It's kind of a difficult process to get through.

ZHOROV: About 30,000 high-skilled immigrants are underemployed in Pennsylvania. Nsaif currently works as a caregiver, bringing in $1,400 a month plus SNAP benefits to purchase some groceries for a family of five. And some see Pittsburgh as kind of parochial, not necessarily open to outsiders. Welcoming Pittsburgh hopes to change all that by opening government and coordinating various agencies' efforts. Singer says it's too soon to tell if it's working in other cities, but what some call deliberate welcoming enhances the number one thing cities need to have - opportunity. As for Nsaif, he's staying positive.

NSAIF: I feel here, in Pittsburgh, I can do many dreams what I have. I feel good for future.

ZHOROV: He's already bought a house. He's participating in a new program for high-skilled immigrants and taking English classes. That's all very good news for the Comeback City. For NPR News, I'm Irina Zhorov.

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