BRAC economis development summit

Gov. John Bel Edwards is questioned by Harry J. “Skip” Philips Jr., a Baton Rouge business lawyer, at a statewide economic development summit in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019.

Last week business leaders gathered in Baton Rouge to discuss how to improve Louisiana’s economic future.

The Statewide Economic Development Summit was supposed to be a governor’s candidate forum but only Gov. John Bel Edwards showed up. His opponent in the Nov. 16 gubernatorial runoff, Eddie Rispone, did not.

The summit addressed transportation, worker training, and other issues that could drive the state to a better economy.

Never once did they mention immigration, though a sheaf of studies shows that newly arrived people from other countries jump start the economies of the places where they land.

A University of Southern California study documented that immigrants increase home values in sagging markets. The Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institute found that immigrants lower crime rates.

The studies were dusted off by The New York Times as precursor to a book being released next month. A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, a Penn State historian, writes in “Barrio America” that Hispanic immigrants arrived as white flight and African American migration depopulated U.S. cities, according to the Times. His research shows that new immigrants moved into depressed neighborhoods and fueled the economies of what became boom towns near the border, like Houston and Phoenix, and further away, like Charlotte and Oklahoma City.

Let’s take Houston, for instance, the city whose weather today is south Louisiana’s tomorrow.

One of the nation’s fastest growing regions, both in terms of population and economic activity, largely because of immigration, Houston’s gross domestic product, which measures economic output, is about $490 billion — almost twice Louisiana’s $256 billion, according to the latest figures compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Louisiana has among the nation’s fewest immigrants, about 185,000 or 4% of the state’s population by last count, calculates the American Immigration Council. Fewer than an estimated 70,000 arrived without proper authorization.

As a point of comparison, 119,931 Louisiana citizens still speak French in their homes — 207 years after the state joined the Union, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Immigrant-led Louisiana households paid about $363 million in state and local taxes, says the Immigration Council. The unauthorized paid about $68 million. Immigrant households had about $3.6 billion in spending power.

Despite the low numbers, Rispone has centered his campaign on the policies of President Donald Trump and anti-immigrant rhetoric, which has chilled any discussion about how Louisiana could profit from attracting new people from other countries.

“I support President Donald Trump’s wall. 110%,” Rispone said in a television commercial.

All this is ironic because Rispone epitomizes the immigrant story.

His grandparents came from an economically depressed Sicily in 1912, “legally” he always adds.

Back then, however, to be legal all an applicant had to do was show up and answer a few questions from a bureaucrat who often couldn’t speak the language.

Rispone’s grandfather was illiterate and couldn’t speak English when he arrived at Ellis Island from the impoverished village of Villafranca, according to the documents filled out by an immigration representative and available through the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation. He was 23 years old with $6 in his pocket, a wife and three small children on his arm.

At the Mexican border today, applicants have to present a hard-to-get visa, prove no criminal history and demonstrate they will not need government help, among other things. The process can take weeks and sometimes families are separated during the procedure.

A 1912 manifest shows 2,166 passengers were on the French-owned steamer, Canada. It took the Rispone family about four hours to clear immigration, board a ferry past the Statue of Liberty, and begin their journey to Amite.

Rispone’s grandfather was a laborer who was joining his in-laws to work in the strawberry and vegetable fields of Tangipahoa Parish.

Rispone’s father moved as an adult to Baton Rouge and worked for what is now the ExxonMobil refinery. After graduating LSU and working a time as an executive in an industrial contracting firm, Rispone and his brother organized a company in his living room that today has annual revenues of almost $400 million.

Pollster Bernie Pinsonat suspects that Rispone, who was largely unknown outside the Republican elite at the start of the campaign, used immigration as shorthand for conservative voters.

“It’s him saying, ‘I’m in this camp’ and reminding them (conservatives) that their opponent lines up with who they think of as socialists in Washington,” Pinsonat said. Polls show Louisiana voters don’t really care about immigration as local issue, only as a national one about traditional American values.

Both Republicans and Democrats use immigration to raise money and energize their voters.

Pinsonat starts off admitting his cynicism, before going on to say that neither side really wants to fix the problem. “Immigration is not about the problem, it’s about using the problem to divide the country,” he said.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.