Let Immigrants Save America’s Struggling Cities

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Immigrants who want to work in the U.S. can be sponsored either by individuals — usually family members — or companies. Regional immigration is a proposed variation on this system, in which a region — probably a city, but perhaps a county or state — sponsors an immigrant for a green card or work visa. It’s an idea that’s been tossed around in policy circles as a way to revive “old industrial cities that have been hollowed out.”

I used to be against regional immigration. The reason is that if regions sponsored foreign workers for H-1B or other work visas — or if regional green-card sponsorship was made conditional on not moving out of the sponsoring region for a certain period of time — it would prevent those immigrants from moving to other places in the U.S. That also feels like a restriction on the basic human freedom of movement. I was worried as well that forcing immigrant workers to stay in one area, thus preventing them from moving for better pay, would put pressure on the wages of nearby native-born workers.

I now believe that regional immigration sponsorship, if implemented responsibly, could provide an important boost for declining U.S. regions while threatening neither American freedoms nor American wages.

The main reason the U.S. needs regional immigration is to revitalize places that have suffered from economic calamities beyond their control. Cities like Youngstown, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan, and other Rust Belt cities were devastated by the decline of U.S. heavy industry. Other towns were hit hard by the wave of cheap Chinese imports that swept over the U.S. in the 2000s. Other regions were gutted by the housing crash and the Great Recession.

When a town is hit hard by an economic shock, the damage gets amplified by the loss of tax revenue. Bad times cause people to move out of an area. Often, those who can afford it, or those with youth and energy, leave first. That shrinks the tax base, making it hard for the city to maintain roads, police forces and schools built for a larger population. Population decline leaves some neighborhoods semi-vacant, attracting drugs and crime. The reduced availability of public services and quality of life push even more people to move away, intensifying the downward spiral.

Towns like Youngstown and Flint, as well as some larger cities like Detroit and Cleveland, have been losing population for decades, even as the country as a whole has grown:

Let Immigrants Save America’s Struggling Cities

Immigration could stem or even reverse that crippling outflow. In many regions, it already has. But as things stand, many immigrants are drawn to the high wages, established ethnic communities, and the glitzy reputation of big cities like New York and Los Angeles — relatively few can be bothered to move to a Youngstown or Flint. Often, the only reason skilled immigrants have to move to a declining region is that there’s a well-funded university there.

Regional visa sponsorship could change this equation. If foreigners who are now kept out of the country by the U.S.’s overly restrictive immigration laws had the option to move to Youngstown, not all would take it, but many would. That would provide the city with the tax revenue to start building better-quality infrastructure and providing more social services, which would in turn make it a more attractive place for native-born Americans — or other immigrants — to move. It would thus turn a vicious cycle into a virtuous one.

Regional immigration might also help soften the edge of xenophobia that has emerged on the American right in recent years. If small towns saw that their own elected representatives were the ones choosing to recruit immigrants, their residents might feel more of a sense of investment in, and control of, the immigration process. If locals decide they’d rather not have immigrants, they can always vote their leaders out.

As for the danger of wage suppression, that probably isn't a big factor. First of all, being tied to a region would be much less restrictive than being tied to a company, as H-1B workers now are. Second, there’s evidence that even though they’re tied to particular employers, H-1B workers already tend to raise the wages of both college-educated and non-college-educated native-born workers.

There is the issue of freedom of movement. But again, this would be less of a problem under regional immigration sponsorship than with the current H-1B system. And a region-based immigration system wouldn’t replace the current system, either — it would be a new, additional way for foreigners to come to the United States. As such, it would actually be improving the overall range of mobility options for people now stuck in China, India or other countries.

Finally, the tie between immigrant and sponsoring region wouldn’t be permanent — after a period of years, they would be able to relocate if they so chose. But my guess is that many would stay and become rooted in their new communities, invested in the task of bringing declining regions back to life.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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