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Population expansion in Western Pennsylvania hinges on immigrants

| Sunday, April 20, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Abdullah AL-Ghadheeb studies for a test Monday April 14, 2014 in the student union on the Uptown campus of Duquesne University.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Abdullah AL-Ghadheeb studies for a test Monday April 14, 2014 in the student union on the Uptown campus of Duquesne University.

Western Pennsylvania's population growth for the next several years will be from moving vans rather than the stork, experts say.

The region's natural population decline, represented by funerals outpacing baby showers every year, is being offset somewhat by people moving here from other parts of the country and the world.

“Right now, international immigration is much bigger than domestic migration,” said Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research. “How that will forecast out to the future will depend on how the economy goes.”

The latest census estimates show that 2,862 people moved into the 10-county region from foreign countries from July 1, 2012, to July 1, 2013. At the same time, deaths in the region outpaced births by 3,376, according to the March estimates.

“Growth is all going to be about whether people are coming here or not,” Briem said.

The region includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

Abdullah AL-Ghadheeb, 22, of Saudi Arabia came to the United States four years ago, arriving in Colorado, then moving to Pittsburgh about two years ago to attend Duquesne University, where he is a sophomore.

One of the best things about the region for immigrants is that it provides the “American experience,” he said.

“Pittsburgh attracts people because of its culture,” he said.

That culture ranges from Primanti Bros. restaurants to the Cultural District, he said. Combine that with the city's three major sports teams and, “Seriously, you can't get that in any other place,” AL-Ghadheeb said.

But a major drawback is that it's hard for visitors to find out what's going on, leaving the wrong impression that there's nothing to do, he said.

“It's definitely not as advertised as other cities,” AL-Ghadheeb said.

Betty Cruz, the city's nonprofit and faith-based manager, is spearheading Mayor Bill Peduto's effort — still in its infancy — to encourage people to move to Pittsburgh and let newcomers know what the city has to offer.

“We don't have any set proposed policy initiatives,” Cruz said.

The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Cruz has spent much of her time going to neighborhood and immigrant groups to emphasize that the city welcomes newcomers.

Educational opportunities are an important draw for Western Pennsylvania, and so is economic opportunity, but the population influx would be greater if the United States would revamp the visa system to groom potential entrepreneurs, said Kamana Mathur, chairwoman of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Foreign students who graduate from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and other local colleges should be able to apply for an “entrepreneur” visa that lets them stay here after they graduate, she said.

Several proposals to establish such a visa have garnered bipartisan support in Congress and the business community but haven't reached the president's desk. The lack of progress is hard to understand because the immigrants in question “are committed and very hard-working and don't mind taking the risks” involved in starting a business, Mathur said.

“We're losing out,” she said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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