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Summary: Immigration and the Implications for Competitiveness in New Orleans and Beyond

April 10, 2013


  • James D. “Buddy” Caldwell, Attorney General, State of Louisiana
  • Mitch Landrieu, Mayor, City of New Orleans


  • Rod Miller, President & CEO, New Orleans Business Alliance
  • Roderick Royal, President, Birmingham City Council
  • Fatima Shama, Commissioner, New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs
  • Jason Marczak, Director of Policy, Americas Society and Council of the Americas (Moderator)


An April 4 AS/COA public luncheon in New Orleans explored immigrants' role in continuing to fuel economic growth in the U.S. and how policies can be created today to maximize their current and future contributions in Louisiana and beyond. The discussion focused on the experience of New Orleans as well as Birmingham (a new destination for immigrants) and New York City (a long-standing immigrant city). The lunch was part of AS/COA’s immigration initiative, which is supported by Rockefeller Brothers Fund and is working in new immigrant gateway cities to, among other things, raise public awareness of the role that immigrants play in local economies and nationally.

“All Politics is Local”

The event was held at an important moment nationally, as discussions around comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) move forward in Congress. While CIR is often thought of as an issue to be sorted out in Washington, the implications of action—or inaction—will be felt at the city and state levels.

Both New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Louisiana Attorney General James D. “Buddy” Caldwell emphasized that immigrants are essential for the current and future economy of the city and the state. Landrieu stressed that New Orleans has always been a city of immigrants and that Congress should pass CIR.  Caldwell called immigration reform a “no brainer.”

The mayor highlighted New Orleans’ storied history of immigration from Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America, making it a natural hub for diverse cultural influences. New Orleans’ status as a gateway city helped it attract the labor force that is largely responsible for rebuilding the city after Hurricane Katrina and for contributing to the continued growth of the region’s economy. Looking ahead, New Orleans seeks to reenergize its relationship with Latin America, which requires the city being a welcoming place.

Following Landrieu’s call for CIR, the attorney general implored policymakers and the public at large to “get the facts straight” on immigrants. He noted how the state benefits from greater diversity and that immigrants and immigration reform are good for business. Moving forward, leaders must articulate the many positive contributions that immigrants bring to cities and states across the nation.

New Orleans’ Strategic Plan

New Orleans will celebrate its tricentennial in 2018 and has identified five industries that it would like to develop over the next half decade. The New Orleans Business Alliance, the official public-private partnership dedicated to the city’s economic development, will lead the charge in implementing this strategic plan. Rod Miller, the Alliance’s president and CEO, explained that immigrants have a critical role to play in growing these industries, which include digital entertainment, retail, manufacturing, trade and logistics, and biosciences. According to Miller, immigration reform presents an opportunity for more individuals to have the authorization to work in these fields now, and train youth to meet labor demands in the future.

Sharing Experiences

New York City and Birmingham—or specifically, Alabama—have seen two very different policy positions in regard to their immigrant residents. New York City’s Commissioner for Immigrant Affairs, Fatima Shama, explained that city governments have a huge responsibility to not only welcome and integrate their immigrant populations, but to also provide the policy tools and resources that enable immigrants to succeed. In New York, creating a specific office for immigrant-related issues and offering government service and hotlines in multiple languages are two examples of the city’s commitment to its diverse foreign-born communities.

Though Birmingham has pursued a number of city-wide policies to attract and retain its immigrant population, it has been challenged by Alabama’s restrictive state legislation, HB 56. Birmingham’s City Council President Roderick Royal lamented his state’s decision to follow in the footsteps of Arizona’s SB1070, especially given the proven unintended economic consequences of such legislation. Royal explained that a change in Alabama’s approach to immigration must come from the state’s leadership, not from actors outside of the state.

Entrepreneurship Meets Education

Immigrants have been shown to be even more entrepreneurial than the U.S. native-born population, helping to create jobs across the communities where they live. Beyond their entrepreneurial traits, immigrants will also be increasingly important for filling labor force needs as baby boomers retire. According to Miller, the New Orleans city government and regional businesses must work hand-in-hand with the area’s seven universities to identify the skills required for regional economic growth and how to train people to fill those jobs. Immigrants will be vital for future labor force needs but New Orleans must demonstrate an explicit resolve to be a new gateway city.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made it clear that the city wants more immigrants, not less, and is ready to do what is necessary to attract them. “If you invest in immigrants, they invest in you,” Shama explained, referring to small businesses, home ownership, taxes, and more. She emphasized that immigration policy must make it easier for immigrants who study in U.S. universities to stay and apply their skills here by starting businesses and contributing to our economy, rather than taking those talents abroad.

To that end, New York City will be home to a new tech campus that will be a run as a joint partnership between Cornell University and Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Nicknamed “Silicon Alley,” the project will be an important opportunity to train more Americans in the STEM fields and ultimately begin to close the growing labor market gap. Immigrants’ role in this process is clear, as three in four patents are created by foreign nationals. “We should be stapling a green card to every advanced degree granted in the U.S.,” Shama explained.