Michigan Governor Rick Snyder seems to have hit a motherlode of
bad ideas to save Detroit last week. First, he announced a
bailout plan that’ll only feed more profligacy by the city’s
Now, he has
decided that he wants to repopulate the city with high-tech
immigrants. To that end, he’s planning on asking President Barack Obama to give him a
special dispensation of 50,000 EB-2 visas. Although details are
skimpy, these immigrants will be required to live and work in
Detroit for some time in the hopes that their superior knowledge
and entrepreneurial skills will reverse half-a-century of
population decline, create jobs and perk up Motown’s sad
“Isn’t that how we made our country great, through immigrants?”
said Mr. Snyder.
Err, yes and no.
Reason and I are all for more
immigration now, tomorrow and forever.
I am also for
federalzing America’s immigration system so that local
municipalities have more flexibility in recruiting immigrants that
best serve their labor needs, just like Canada does.
But the notion that cities like Detroit can conscript immigrants
and watch a comeback happen is fanciful at best, as I wrote in
this Bloomberg column last year. Immigrants are ordinary
mortals, not miracle workers.
There is no doubt that newcomers are very good at finding and
seizing openings in an economy that the native-born residents don’t
see or don’t want. But these opportunities have to exist.
Folks like Snyder often point to examples of Korean
storeowners reviving blighted New York neighborhoods
in the 1970s. But as I noted:
New York in the 1970s wasn’t quite as desolate a place as
Detroit is today. Its population losses were not as severe. The
financial industry had not retrenched as badly as Detroit’s auto
industry has. And its government wasn’t as badly broken. New York
got a federal loan to avoid bankruptcy, to be sure — but not until
Ford was convinced it was serious about dealing with its
structural fiscal imbalances, not to mention crime and crumbling
schools. That is when the city became a magnet for immigrants who
speeded up its turnaround.
Crucial to whether immigrants can boost a city’s prospects or
not is why the city went downhill in the first place. Immigrants
easily reversed New York’s population decline because New Yorkers
weren’t leaving the city because opportunities had dried up. They
were leaving for greener pastures elsewhere. That is not the case
in Detroit and other Rust Belt cities, for that matter. As I
[I]mmigrants aren’t pioneers whose survival depends on
conquering an inhospitable frontier. Yes, they can put up with far
greater hardship than the native-born, but they aren’t clueless
ingenues who are easily seduced. They have word- of-mouth networks
that alert them to places that offer them the best economic and
social fit, making it difficult to plunk them anywhere and expect
So what should Detroit, Baltimore, and other struggling cities
do to become more attractive to immigrants? Offer them a decent
quality of life at an affordable price. This means improving
schools, tackling crime, creating an entrepreneur-friendly climate
and keeping taxes reasonable.
You can’t pour high-octane fuel into a broken engine and expect
it to run, folks. Gotta fix the engine first.
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