Welcome to the Burgh: Pittsburgh is smart to seek out foreign immigrants

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Pittsburgh knows well the story of how a robust influx of immigrants can create a vibrant American city. It is a vital part of the story of how Pittsburgh grew into a modern industrial power.

The initiative labeled Welcoming Pittsburgh, launched by Mayor Bill Peduto on Wednesday, is an acknowledgment that, if the city is to thrive in the 21st century, it must make Pittsburgh as attractive to a new generation of immigrants as it was to our forebears in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

So far, Pittsburgh has been lagging behind its peer cities in net immigration, and the region’s economic fortunes — as well as Mr. Peduto’s stated goal of boosting the population by 20,000 in a decade — rest on boosting the number of newcomers.

Think it’s not possible to draw recent immigrants to Pittsburgh? Look no further than the South Hills neighborhood of Beechview, where the addition of Latino immigrants has spurred the growth of local businesses and triggered a surge of interest in housing. More than 1,300 Bhutanese, nearly 500 Burmese, almost 200 Iraqis and more than 260 Somalis have made other communities in the region their new home. But the numbers are scant compared with other metropolitan areas.

Welcoming Pittsburgh is part of a national, grass-roots collaboration that differs from city to city. It is in its infancy here, and the city is taking applications from individuals who wish to serve on its 25-member advisory council. One of the first concrete steps is the makeup of participants in the city’s upcoming Civic Leadership Academy, a free, 10-week crash course in government; recent immigrants will fill half of the slots in the fall class.

A welcoming approach to immigrants naturally raises questions about the conflict between the circumstances of those who arrive legally and those who get here by other means. In some places — Chicago and Dayton, Ohio, among them — efforts to welcome immigrants have led to the creation of policies that discourage local police from questioning the immigration status of individuals unless they are accused of serious crime.

Pittsburgh certainly does not want to be a community where people cower in fear of being asked to “produce their papers,” but solving the nation’s ineffective immigration policies clearly does not fall within the scope of Welcoming Pittsburgh’s role. The emphasis of this campaign must be on attracting legal immigrants.

This undertaking holds enormous potential if its leaders focus on their mission of improving the city through growth.

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