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The Fabric of the City: Immigrant Communities

Philadelphia’s population growth in recent years has been driven in no small part by immigrants, who now account for a larger share of the city’s population than any time since the 1940s.[1] Growth in the city’s immigrant communities has far outpaced native-born communities in recent years: between 2010 and 2017, Philadelphia’s foreign-born population grew by 21.8 percent while the native-born population only grew by 2 percent.


The rapid growth of Philadelphia’s foreign-born community has benefited the city’s local economy in many ways. Foreign-born individuals had a combined household income of nearly $27 billion in 2017, an increase of nearly $3 billion from the previous year.[2] Immigrants are also an integral part of the city’s growing labor force. From 2000 to 2016, the city’s immigrant labor force grew by 89 percent while the number of native-born residents in the labor force grew by only 5 percent.[3] In addition to creating new businesses and adding their skills to the labor force, immigrants also bring with them new cultural assets such as unique language proficiencies.


In light of the expanding contributions of foreign-born communities to Philadelphia’s economy, a group of cross-sector leaders participating in the Economy League’s 2019 Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange will attend a Regional Exploration on immigrant communities in South Philadelphia. In this regional exploration presented by Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health, GPLEXers will learn about opportunities to foster local economic development by leveraging foreign-born assets such as language proficiencies, supporting the immigrant business community, and creating a more inclusive atmosphere for individuals from these communities. This data brief presents some high-level context and statistics to help set the stage for the visit to South Philadelphia. 


A Mosaic of Cultures

Philadelphia’s growing immigrant populations have created a unique mosaic of cultures across the city. Spatial analysis of the percent of foreign-born individuals across the city shows overall prominence of Latin American, Asian, Middle Eastern, and European populations (see figure 1). South Philadelphia in particular, shows a high density of these populations. While the map below visualizes the continent of birth of foreign-born individuals, there is tremendous diversity. Major countries represented include China, Mexico, and Vietnam, as well as significant groups from other Latin American countries including El Salvador, and Guatemala, and Southeast Asian countries including Cambodia and Indonesia.


FIGURE 1: Percent Foreign-Born in Philadelphia in 2017

  • Percent Foreign-Born Population in Philadelphia (2017)


South Philadelphia also stands out in a spatial analysis by languages spoken at home, with high concentrations of Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese speakers (see figure 2). South Philadelphia is the most linguistically diverse area in the city.


FIGURE 2 - Languages Spoken at Home in Philadelphia in 2015

  • Languages Spoken at Home in Philadelphia in 2015


South Philadelphia Context

From the diverse 7th Street Corridor, to the Italian and Mexican communities near the historic Italian Market, to the Vietnamese Community near Passyunk Square, South Philadelphia has a rich history defined in large part by successive waves of immigration. The individual neighborhoods within South Philly have long been a magnet for foreign-born newcomers due to relatively affordable housing prices and the presence of well-established immigrant communities.[4] While the native-born population in South Philly grew by 6.3 percent between 2010 and 2017, the foreign-born population grew by 24.5 percent, mirroring trends in Philadelphia as a whole. South Philly’s foreign-born population also grew from 13.9 percent of the total population in 2010 to 15.9 percent in 2017. This two percent increase tracked the city’s growth as a whole; the foreign-born population increased from 11.4 to 13.3 percent during the same time period.


South Philadelphia also has a rich history of fostering immigrant business formation and growth. One recognizable example is the historic Italian Market on South 9th Street. The market, traditionally a hub of early Italian immigrant business activity has recently evolved to include entrepreneuaral activity from recent Asian and Latin American immigrant communities. In the 1980s and 1990s the market saw a slow decline, but it has since been revitalized in large part due to the entrepreneurial bent of its growing immigrant population. The corridor’s newfound vibrancy stems in large measure from businesses run by a diverse array of immigrant entrepreneurs who hail primarily from Asia and Latin American.


Furthering Economic Development and Inclusion

Many efforts are underway to further assist the economic development of immigrant communities in the region. While there is a diverse array of services and programs, efforts fall into two broad categories. The first aims at creating and cultivating a business ecosystem that works for diverse groups through creative support services and by developing an environment that is conducive to entrepreneurship. The second focuses on supporting individuals and families that come to Philadelphia seeking opportunity. 


Three examples of the first category are the Economy League’s Philadelphia Anchors for Growth and Equity (PAGE) initiative, the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Accelerate Latinx program, as well as the entrepreneurship programming of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. PAGE strives to create a business ecosystem that elevates minority business owners and allows them to thrive in a competitive market. PAGE seeks to drive economic growth by leveraging the purchasing power of the region’s major eds-and-meds anchor institutions, focusing on increasing opportunities for local diverse businesses, including immigrant-owned firms, to access institutional supply chains. Accelerate Latinx aims to connect aspiring entrepreneurs to a strong network of successful businesspeople, to training and learning opportunities, and to mentorship opportunities. The Welcoming Center aims create a friendly environment for local immigrant entrepreneurs, with programming that includes small business development and accelerator opportunities, as well as community engagement resources.


Other efforts aim to bridge gaps that may be unique to immigrant communities and provide supportive services to individuals who come here for economic opportunity. The Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition (SEAMAAC) is a 35-year-old agency founded by refugees and works to address the challenges faced by immigrant communities. SEAMAAC offers a wide array of heritage-friendly services to immigrant communities with the support of a multi-ethnic staff including educational programming such as the hip hop heritage (H3) summer program, health and social services, and the summer WorkReady program. Similarly, the Southwark public elementary school in South Philadelphia has created a unique curriculum that leverages the growing diversity in South Philadelphia, particularly among the Spanish-speaking population. Southwark’s immersive two-way bilingual program and its related educational training helps to close potential education gaps for non-native English speakers in South Philadelphia and build deeper ties between immigrant and native children and their families.



Immigrants play an important role in the relatively newfound economic vibrancy of Philadelphia, comprising a critical element in the labor force and in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, continuing to reshape the city’s mosaic of cultures. In South Philadelphia in particular, the changes wrought by immigrants, especially immigrant entrepreneurs, are producing enormous economic and cultural contributions. In recent years, the City of Philadelphia has taken steps to recognize and elevate the importance of the immigrant community’s contribution to local economic growth. By supporting both individuals as well as the economic activity brought by the many individuals and businesses, we can extend a greater shared prosperity to all residents of the city. 



An important note about nomenclature: This brief uses the terms “immigrant” and “foreign-born” interchangeably to refer to U.S. residents who are born as citizens of other countries. It uses the term “native-born” to refer to individuals who are U.S. residents who are born as citizens of this country.



[1] McCrone, Brian and Alicia Victoria Lozano. 2018. “'Major Demographic Force in Philadelphia': Immigrants Up 69% in City Since 2000, According to Pew Report.” NBC Philadelphia, June 7. Retrieved from:

[2] Anon. 2019. “New American Economy.” New American Economy. Retrieved from:

[3] Pew Charitable Trusts. 2018. Philadelphia's Immigrants: Who They Are and How They Are Changing the City. Philadelphia, PA. Retrieved from:

[4] Heninger, Danya. 2017. “Philly Is All In on Immigrant Business Week; Here's Why.” Billy Penn, March 27. Retrieved from:




Philly Immigrant Communities- Earnings up 13% - BillyPenn 2019


Sanctuary Cities 101 and How Philly Came to Be One - Generocity 2017


Philadelphia’s Immigrants – Who are They - PEW 2016


South Philly via Palermo, Puebla, Saigon - New Food Economy 2016


Philadelphia officials urge support for refugees amid reports of impending ‘ban’ - WHYY 2016