International community thriving in The Woodlands Residents bring immigration concerns to township board of directors

The Woodlands has become a hub for international companies over the last decade, drawing foreign residents to the community for jobs and new opportunities as a result of years of recruiting and marketing efforts across the world by various business organizations.

“I think this is something the forefathers of The Woodlands wanted and tried to differentiate themselves back then from say, Houston,” said Pete Garcia, executive director of the U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce The Woodlands-Gulf Coast Chapter. “They sought out to get international companies looking for a place to do business and park their U.S. headquarters. I think The Woodlands has done a very good job of extending their arms and saying, ‘You’re welcome to come here and live, shop, do business and hopefully invest.’”

However, residents from all backgrounds brought forward concerns to the township’s board of directors this spring regarding proposed national and state immigration legislation, anti-minority rhetoric heard in the community and worries about the potential economic effects of international residents selling properties and leaving The Woodlands.International community thriving in The Woodlands

Although the township does not have authority over immigration laws, the board approved a proclamation in support of a diverse community and all people regardless of race, nationality, religious belief, sexual orientation and socio-economic status during its March 22 meeting.

“I think it’s a proclamation that we as a community should stand up and be proud that we are a community that is open to all people,” township Director Ann Snyder said.

Drawing in foreign businesses

There are at least 10 international companies represented in The Woodlands, totaling 2,955 jobs with an assessed value of $149 million in office space, said Gil Staley, CEO of The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership. U.K.-based Aon Hewitt is the largest of the companies with 1,800 jobs, but other international companies include Repsol, Rigaku Americas and Holland-based Questback, which opened its second U.S. location in The Woodlands last summer.

Designed to hold 10,000 employees, the 386-acre ExxonMobil campus that opened in 2015 just south of The Woodlands in Springwoods Village—where nearly 100 different languages are spoken—has also made the area more cosmopolitan, officials said.

“It’s just an unbelievable advantage in having such a global company here in this community and attracting those professionals from out of the country,” Staley said. “That has a significant impact on recruiting the workforce from out of the country.”

The largest minority group  in The Woodlands is Hispanics—composing 17 percent of the community’s residents, according to U.S. census data. About 10 years ago, representatives from The Woodlands began traveling to Mexico to promote tourism to the community, Garcia said, which is one reason more international residents have moved to the area.

“When [international] people come for business, especially if they bring their family and go shopping and go to events, they do it for business, but then they like it,” Garcia said. “Most people I talk to, in one trip after one visit they were sold; they came back and bought a house.”

Problems Mexico has been facing with drug cartels and insecurities at the border also may have influenced Mexicans to decide to move to the U.S., said resident Maitaine Tidwell, one of the community leaders urging the board to support diversity.

“The Woodlands came in and marketed at the perfect opportunity to welcome Mexicans to invest and buy in The Woodlands,” Tidwell said. “That’s the demographic shift we’re seeing.”International community thriving in The Woodlands

Although Hispanics are the largest group of minorities in the community, international residents come from all over the world due to recruiting efforts by business organizations in the community, officials said.

These efforts have helped draw in new residents from outside the U.S. over the last decade. Approximately 1,500 new international residents have moved to Montgomery County annually since 2011, at which time the number spiked from 335 international newcomers the previous year in 2010. Last year, international residents made up 10 percent of all new residents in the county, according to census data.

International business effects 

The economies of The Woodlands and the Greater Houston area rely heavily on international business and international travelers, specifically from Mexico, officials said.

The Greater Houston area does $115 billion in trade with Mexico on an annual basis, which is roughly one-fifth of the $500 billion in trade the U.S. does annually with the country, Garcia said.

“There’s no other city that relies as much on Mexico trade as does our local community,” he said. “We have a lot to lose if we lose a lot of interest in the Mexican businesses coming here.”

Of the thousands of new international residents who came to the county from 2010-14, the largest sector was from Latin America, totaling 1,913 new residents, according to the state demographer’s office. In Montgomery County, the number of foreign-born residents has increased from 25,276 in 2000 to 64,131 residents in 2015, according to census data.

Although the township could not provide specific economic data regarding effects of international visitors, sales tax collections have increased along with the influx of new international and domestic residents. In 2016, the township collected approximately $49 million in sales tax revenue compared to $39.5 million in 2012, according to township data. Hotel tax revenue also increased during the same time period, up to approximately $8.2 million from $6 million.

Nick Wolda, director of community relations for the township and president of The Woodlands Convention and Visitors Bureau, said while the township does not itemize sales tax receipts and hotel occupancy taxes by country of origin, people from all over the world visit, live and invest in the community.

“The point is that The Woodlands has long been known as open for home and corporate investment, shopping, dining, entertainment and now conventions and leisure travel,” he said.

Immigration legislation concerns

Although The Woodlands is home to a large number of international businesses and residents, recent immigration policies at the state and national level and rhetoric heard across the community have garnered concerns.

More than a dozen residents spoke during the March 22 township board meeting, expressing thoughts ranging from the economic effects of foreign residents leaving the community, to the need of forming a diversity task force, to concerns from residents who have been told not to speak their native language in public in the community.

State legislation, including Senate Bill 4—which would cut funding for municipalities that do not enforce immigration laws—and national immigration policies like President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border, are also concerns for some residents of The Woodlands.

Resident Delores Cardinas said many immigrants move to the U.S. because they cannot count on their own country’s police force to keep them safe. She urged the board to ask the county sheriff to come out against SB 4.

“Oftentimes, the police are agents of fear rather than comfort [in other countries],” Cardinas said. “What a tragedy it would be if our immigrant and minority community perceived our police like that.”International community thriving in The Woodlands

Resident Perla Soto—who moved from Mexico to The Woodlands seven years ago—said she and her husband will be moving back to Mexico this summer due to several reasons, but the current political climate in the U.S. was the last push, she said.

“Since the current president took over, his discourse has been one of anti-immigration and anti-Mexican rhetoric,” Soto said. “Before he started his campaign, real estate was in strong demand by Mexicans in The Woodlands.”

In February, residents Jennifer Majors Baca and Adria Keeney formed The Woodlands Coalition for Equality in response to President Trump’s victory in the November election but realized that was not a long-term vision. Instead, the nonpartisan group—which has grown to 300 members since February—plans to volunteer and become more active in the community.

“We feel because of our diverse population—from visitors to expats to dual citizens and natural-born Americans—that The Woodlands is a stronger community socially and economically,” media director Robin Fulford said. “We thought, this is a chance to unify our whole community around this and say, ‘We are not the sum of these instances.’”

Township board Chairman Gordy Bunch said everyone has diversity in their own backgrounds that may not always be self-evident.

“We are a nation of immigrants, and that’s something we’re all proud of,” he said. “We’re proud of our diverse community and contributions that are made from all the various folks who live and work and play here.”

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