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04.07.2014
Editorial> Immigrate to the U.S.? Try Detroit
Immigration reform is no panacea for Detroit, but its delay isn't helping anyone.
The Detroit skyline.
Nic Redhead / Flickr

At the end of January, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder laid out the latest plan to save the city of Detroit: welcome 50,000 new immigrants, tying special U.S. visas to a commitment to live and work in Motor City for five years. The EB-2 visas would go to an initial 5,000 immigrants, expanding to 15,000 by the final year of the five-year plan. These green cards are typically awarded to immigrants with advanced degrees, or “exceptional ability” in the sciences, arts, or business. “Isn’t that how we made our country great, through immigrants?” said Snyder. “Detroit is open to the world.”

This plan to “jump start” perennially struggling Detroit is worth considering. But it’s not without its faults. Detroit’s population has fallen to 700,000 residents from 1.8 million in the 1950s—50,000 immigrants would not even be one quarter of the people who have left the city since 2000. Facing population loss unparalleled in the U.S., apart from post-Katrina New Orleans, it would seem that any feasible plan to turn Detroit’s fortunes around needs to be big, even unusual. Snyder’s plan certainly is, and it has generated a lot of controversy in turn.

Some have called it “Afro-dilution”—a disenfranchisement of the existing population, which is predominantly African-American. In Detroit, where the scars of white flight and past race riots run deep, Snyder’s grand proposal may come off as a vote of no-confidence in those who have stuck it out and tried painstakingly to rebuild their home. It will amount to as much if the call for immigrants is meant to resurrect the city’s devastated jobs market by itself. We need to know what Snyder and others will do with the tax base they hope to grow with new immigrants, if the plan works.

Some 38 percent of Detroiters live below the poverty line, more than a quarter of a million of them black, and an influx of new entrepreneurs won’t address the underlying reasons for that injustice. Those challenges are tied to what keeps away many people who could move to Detroit already, without an EB-2 visa—current and future Detroiters (wherever they arrive from) need to be sure the governor and others are investing in the city, not hoping eager outsiders will solve those problems by themselves.

But as an appeal to the quintessentially American values of social mobility and reinvention, Snyder’s vision is attractive. Why shouldn’t Detroit try something bold, instead of merely patching over its most recent bruises, emerging hobbled from bankruptcy?

Detroit is not the only Midwestern city looking to turn the tide of long-term job and population loss by looking abroad. If it works there, why not in Youngstown? Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said last year he had seen “up-close the vital contributions immigrants make to our economy.” Every year one half of all new Chicago businesses are started by immigrants, Emanuel wrote in a Sun-Times editorial.

Would it work? Enforcing site-specific visas could prove difficult, but it is not without precedent. Canada does this within provinces. We track employment tied to many visas already, and run loan forgiveness programs tied to public service jobs—the requirement for Detroit could be proof of homeownership, or an annual piece of paperwork. The program as proposed would be unusual, but it can be done without the absurd, dystopian visions of those envisioning giant fences lining city limits.

To some the move is an end-run. Fix problems at home, they say, for Americans already in dire straits. But if Snyder’s supporters are right to say the successes of native-born and new Americans reinforce one another, then we need not pit current citizens against immigrants.

Perhaps the whole discussion is an incitement to federal action on immigration. Snyder wants President Barack Obama to grant the EB-2s through executive action, bypassing the doldrums of Congress. The Senate passed an immigration reform bill last year, but the House of Representatives has fumbled repeatedly.

Detroit needs a lot of things. Immigration is one of them—five percent of Detroit’s population is foreign-born, which is less than the state average and less than half the national average—whether it is through administrative schemes like Governor Snyder’s or legislative reform.

Chris Bentley