Summary: Immigrants' Impact on the Economy and Housing in Charlotte and Nationwide

By Andreina Seijas

How do immigrants drive the growth of small businesses and revitalize urban areas in the United States?


  • John Autry, District 5 Council Member, Charlotte City Council
  • Ari Matusiak, Special Assistant to the President and Director of Private Sector Engagement, The White House
  • Amb. Eduardo Medina-Mora, Ambassador of Mexico to the U.S.     


  • Karl Dean, Mayor, Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County
  • Amb. Eduardo Medina-Mora, Ambassador of Mexico to the U.S.     
  • Fatima Shama, Commissioner, New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs
  • Jacob Vigdor, Professor of Public Policy and Economics, Duke University
  • Jason Marczak, Director of Policy, AS/COA (Moderator)


A May 30 AS/COA public luncheon in Charlotte, North Carolina explored immigrants' impact on economic growth in the United States, particularly on the housing market. Panelists also spoke about policies that can maximize immigrants’ current and future economic and civic contributions in Charlotte and nationwide. The discussion focused on the experience of Charlotte as well as Nashville—a new destination for immigrants—and New York City, an established immigrant hub. The lunch was part of AS/COA’s immigration initiative, supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and working in new immigrant gateway cities to raise public awareness of the role immigrants play in local economies and nationally.

North Carolina’s Melting Pot

A city of less than 800,000 residents, Charlotte saw its immigrant population jump from 23,000 people in 1990 to 173,000 in 2010. This demographic transformation took the city by surprise, but today, immigrants’ positive impacts on Charlotte’s economy and society are helping the city thrive. According to Charlotte City Council Member John Autry, foreign residents have become a part of the fabric of the city. “We welcome the immigrant community that is coming to our society because they not only enrich our palates, but also enrich the character and culture that is already a big part of Charlotte,” he added.

The Mexican community is one of the most extensive immigrant communities in Charlotte. To put things in perspective, Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Eduardo Medina-Mora noted that more Mexicans live and invest in North Carolina than in the United Kingdom. North Carolina also shares many of Mexico’s industries, such as aerospace, automotive, biotechnology, sustainable energy and software—making them natural commercial partners.

Ari Matusiak, special assistant to the president and director of private sector engagement at the White House, also underscored the importance of supporting regional economies. He stressed the need to fix the immigration system, and explained that economic competitiveness, job creation, entrepreneurship, and innovation are all linked to immigration reform, making it imperative for Congress to act. “What immigrants need is economic certainty. If people have certainty, they will invest,” he said.

Immigrant Contributions in Nashville and New York

Cities across the country have witnessed similar immigrant contributions. This is the case of Nashville, Tennessee, a city of over 600,000 people with 11 percent of the population foreign-born. Mayor Karl Dean noted that being a friendly city toward immigrants is vital to being able to attract and retain international businesses. In the last 20 years, immigrants have strengthened the Nashville economy by buying homes, purchasing goods, and filing vacant positions in the job market. Community leaders, along with non-profits and corporations, have been able to counter the initial backlash toward immigrants by celebrating immigration’s positive effects on the city. “When immigrants pick your city, that is a great honor,” Dean said.

With 60 percent of the population born abroad and a long-standing tradition of immigration, New York City also has lessons to share. Jason Marczak of AS/COA noted the multiplier effects that immigrants have in making communities more attractive for middle- and working-class Americans. Commissioner Fatima Shama of New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs described how neighborhoods like Queens and the Bronx were revived by an influx of immigrants. Due to its multicultural nature, the city has been able to attract 52 million tourists—all valuable sources of revenue and urban vitality. “That could be Charlotte,” Shama said. “This is your chance to make the city one of the most welcoming in the world.”

Reviving the Housing Market and Local Businesses

Forthcoming research on immigration and the housing market by AS/COA and Partnership for a New American Economy will reveal a strong correlation between the emergence of immigrant communities and the revitalization of urban areas. Immigrants who move to cities like New York and Charlotte are drawn to areas in decline where they can afford to buy houses and set up their businesses. “When immigrants move to a local area, natives follow,” said Jacob Vigdor of Duke University, the lead researcher on the study. This is the same case of Duplin and Sampson counties in North Carolina, where immigrants have settled and communities have become more vibrant, supporting the housing market and improving quality of life overall.

Besides homeownership, entrepreneurship is also a strong indicator of a growing immigrant community. Shama explained how the Bronx has become one of the fastest-growing West African and Mexican communities in New York City, which have revitalized the area as the influx of immigrants leads to new shops and small businesses opening up. For Autry, immigrant entrepreneurship also explains the recent transformation of South Boulevard and Central Avenue in Charlotte. “As prices went down, immigrants were able to come in and devise their own version of the American entrepreneurial dream,” he explained.

Steps to Build a Stronger Immigrant Community

Local policies and strategic partnerships are necessary to maximize the potential of Charlotte’s recent demographic growth. For Shama, aside from the potential for comprehensive immigration reform, the relevant question is what cities are doing now to promote immigrant integration. “Immigration is a federal issue, but immigrants are a local issue,” she explained.

On the local level, Dean highlighted Nashville’s successful efforts to reduce distrust between public safety officers and members of the immigrant community by hiring more Spanish-speaking officers. Shama mentioned New York’s commitment to recognize language diversity and guarantee confidentiality when it comes to immigrants’ documentation status. From a regional perspective, Medina-Mora highlighted the need to strengthen regional cooperation, as well as the economic opportunities for North Carolina through its geographic and social proximity to Mexico.

New government spaces to cultivate immigration policies, greater community awareness of immigrants’ positive effects, and increased business support for local programs are key elements for successful immigrant integration at the local level. For Autry, it’s a question of sharing best practices. “Once you start talking about it positively, it makes it harder for people who are being instinctively negative to get much traction,” he said.