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News / Nation & World

Cities shrink but immigrants help stem population losses

By Tim Henderson, Stateline.org
Published: April 22, 2023, 6:05am

Continuing a pandemic trend, Americans are moving to the South and Southwest and from cities to the suburbs in search of more space and homes they can afford, recent government data indicates.

But immigration, which is starting to bounce back from pandemic lows, has helped mitigate population loss in major cities.

A Stateline analysis of U.S. Postal Service change-of-address data from mid-2022 through March shows Americans continuing to pour into suburbs and small cities in the South and Southwest. The same trends showed in recently released U.S. Census Bureau population estimates for mid-2021 to mid-2022.

“There is an acceleration of previous trends away from large, expensive, dense urban areas,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group, who has analyzed county population growth using census estimates. Population loss in large cities would have been worse if not for immigrants moving in, Ozimek said.

He added that housing prices are rising quickly in some of the smaller cities that are destinations for movers. The housing shortage in such places, Ozimek said, is partly the result of zoning policies that dissuade developers from building affordable housing.

“In a lot of places where people are trying to move, they’re not building housing,” he said.

The only areas to see outflows of movers between mid-2021 and mid-2022, and drops in population overall, were the central counties within large metropolitan areas. In those areas, a net 829,000 people moved out, compared with the previous year’s net exodus of 1.2 million, according to a Stateline analysis using the census estimate and county classifications from the National Center for Health Statistics. But a bump in immigration limited total population loss to only 49,000 in those areas from mid-2021 to mid-2022, compared with 793,000 the previous year.

Those losses could continue: From mid-2022 to earlier this year, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City ZIP codes had the most people moving out, according to change-of-address forms.

The places that gained the most people between mid-2021 and mid-2022 were smaller metro areas with populations under a million, and outlying areas of bigger cities. Address changes since then reflect similar patterns: From mid-2022 through March, people flocked to the Florida cities of Port Saint Lucie and Ocala, along with The Villages, a retirement mecca south of Ocala. Many people also left Houston for suburban Katy and Austin for Georgetown, north of the Texas capital.

The county with the highest population growth between mid-2021 and mid-2022 was Maricopa County in Arizona, where Phoenix is located. But that county’s growth was led by people moving to suburban Surprise and Queen Creek (which straddles Maricopa and Pima counties), according to change-of-address forms from that time.

Meanwhile, population loss is straining big city finances.

In Los Angeles, for example, the city controller warned in a March review that declining home sales would make it harder to pay for ambitious plans such as Democratic Mayor Karen Bass’ strategy to reduce homelessness.

Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, a Democrat, has pledged to stop property tax increases he blames for driving people out of the city.

But immigrants have mitigated the population loss in big cities. In Miami-Dade County in Florida, immigration more than doubled to about 39,000 between mid-2021 and mid-2022, helping turn the previous year’s population loss into a small gain of 3,400. King County, Washington, home of Seattle, experienced a similar turnaround.

A record-breaking influx of more than 300,000 Cuban migrants in 2022, many coming over the Southwest border after flights to Central America, deluged places such as Miami and Hudson County, New Jersey. But tighter restrictions on asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, enacted by the Biden administration earlier this year, have spurred many Cuban and Haitians to get to Florida by boat. That has prompted the administration to start negotiations with Cuba and Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to call in the National Guard.

In Texas, where immigrants helped compensate for people moving out of Houston and Dallas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has made a show of sending buses of migrants from the border to Northeastern cities, though many end up getting off in red states. DeSantis also has transported migrants to Northeastern cities and proposed a widespread crackdown on migrants without legal status and those who help them.

The surge in immigration is more of a return to normal than an unusual spike, said Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute. It’s hard to tell how much of the increase comes from border traffic of migrants entering the country illegally and those seeking asylum, and how much from more typical legal avenues such as work and family visas. Those legal avenues also picked up last year after in-person interviews stalled early in the pandemic.

“I wouldn’t discount legal immigration as a factor,” Gelatt said. “We were under a lot of public health restrictions and those were easing authorities were working through the backlog and also using new flexibility to waive interviews for a lot of visas, as a way to help more people get into the United States more quickly.”

Immigration more than doubled across all types of counties from rural to the most urban between mid-2021 and mid-2022, according to the Stateline analysis of census estimates.

Those immigrants might end up moving to more affordable areas, but some may remain in large cities so they can earn higher wages, Ozimek said.

“Immigrants are willing to endure the high cost of living in cities,” Ozimek said. “High cost of living translates to higher nominal wages. If someone is saving a chunk of their money for remittances back home, they’d rather live in a high wage, high cost of living place, because that’s more value.”

In rural areas and suburbs, immigration also more than doubled between mid-2021 and mid-2022, according to the Stateline analysis.

“Rural population change would have been pretty much flat without (immigration),” said Tim Marema, vice president of the Center for Rural Strategies based in Kentucky and Tennessee and editor of the organization’s publication, the Daily Yonder.

John Rosenow, a rural Wisconsin dairy farmer, said the area’s supply of immigrant farm labor has returned to normal, but costs haven’t for those willing to hire people living in the country illegally.

“The only change with all that anti-immigrant rhetoric was the cost of a coyote (smuggler). Twenty years ago, it cost $1,500, while today, it is $12,000 or so,” Rosenow said.

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