Spokane Is Not a Magnet for Immigrants

by Dr. Patrick Jones

With the notable exception of Native Americans, immigrants have defined the history of this country. Distinct waves of people coming from somewhere else started in the early 1600s and continue to this day. Yet, Spokane’s Lady Liberty doesn’t seem to hold the same appeal for the foreign-born as other parts of the U.S. do.

As indicator 0.2.2 reveals, immigrants to the county have climbed over the past decade. In 2008, Census estimated that over 23,000 Spokane County residents were born in other countries; by 2018, this number stood at approximately 28,500. The two shades of the bar depict whether the foreign-born have become U.S. citizens or not.

Yet the indicator also reveals that the share of the county population accounted for by the foreign-born, naturalized or not, remains far below the shares of the U.S. and Washington state. For 2018, the total foreign-born share here was estimated to be 5.5%. While that represents a slight increase from 2008, it is statistically not significant. The U.S. share in 2018 was 13.7%, and for Washington, higher yet, at 14.6%.

Actually, Spokane is an anomaly east of the Cascades. Shares of the foreign-born in the metro areas of Eastern Washington are considerably larger. For both the Tri Cities and the greater Wenatchee area, the demographic made up a little more than 15% of total population in 2018. Yakima County’s estimated share in 2018 was over 19%. And Grant County’s estimate for 2018 stood at over 20%.

The profile of immigrants in Spokane County departs from that of the U.S. and Washington in another way:  a majority of the foreign-born now report that they are U.S. citizens. For the U.S., the percentages are identical. But for Washington state, considerably more foreign-born are not citizens than those who are. So while not attracting nearly as many people from overseas, Spokane appears to assimilate them more readily.

Another measure of immigration, indicator 0.2.5, Share of the Population Not Speaking English at Home, corroborates the findings of the foreign-born.  In 2018, Census estimated that about 7.5% of the residents in Spokane County did not use English as the primary language in the home; this is largely unchanged from 2010. Contrast this estimate to that of the U.S. – about 22%, and that of Washington State, at 20%. Here the gap is slightly larger between Spokane and the benchmarks than for the foreign-born. This might give further evidence to the notion that the assimilation rate here is higher than elsewhere in the U.S. Or, it could be that the county attracts foreign-born who are already English speakers at a slightly higher rate.

Why might this community lag so far behind the U.S. and the state in attracting the foreign-born? There are several possible explanations. For one, there is little need for agricultural labor in the county. The orchards, vineyards and field crops of central Washington have long attracted migrant labor, many of whom have become permanent residents, if not citizens. This type of agriculture doesn’t exist in Spokane.

Another reason lies in the middle size of Spokane. As a metro statistical area (MSA), it now ranks 100th in the U.S. But it is the biggest of the MSAs that have typically attracted the largest numbers of immigrants. William Frey, long-time demographer at the Brookings Institute, recently wrote about the changing patterns of immigration in the U.S. Among the ten largest MSAs, foreign-born shares in 2018 ranged from 11% (Philadelphia) to 41% (Miami-Ft. Lauderdale). Among the next ten largest MSAs, these shares range from 5% (St. Louis) to 31% (San Francisco). With four exceptions, all 20 of the country’s largest MSAs showed immigrant shares higher than the national average. Clearly, immigrants prefer cities, actually metropolises.  

Another reason for Spokane’s tepid growth of immigrants undoubtedly lies in the region’s relatively slow economy over the past few years. The Frey study also ranks MSAs by an immigrant growth rate over the period 2010-2018. Those in top ten, which include the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue MSA, increased full- and part-time jobs by a cumulative average of 29%. Job growth in the U.S. was 18% over the same period, and in the Spokane MSA, which includes Pend Oreille and Stevens Counties, 15%. While familial connections count in the choice of landing spot for immigrants, job prospects probably play at least as important a role.

Other factors have undoubtedly influenced Spokane’s weak draw for immigrants. It would be great to hear readers’ thoughts on this.

What might the next five years show for the County? It seems clear that the larger forces pushing international in-migration upward will not strengthen appreciably. As Frey notes, the year-over-year increase in 2018 of immigrants to the U.S. was the lowest in since 2008. The decline of immigrant growth was in place before the Trump administration, but its actions against legal and illegal immigration has certainly helped to depress the numbers even lower.

On the other hand, the same report points out that the states where foreign-born shares have gained the most are non-traditional landing spots for immigrants, such as North and South Dakota (115% and 58% gains from 2010 to 2018, respectively), Idaho and Utah, among others. Spokane has had more culturally in common with these inland states than the western metro areas of Washington, Oregon and California. Couple this trend with the recent increase of the pace of job creation in Spokane, and the next 3-5 years might well see more international diversity in our schools and churches and on storefront signs.