Can immigrants save Detroit?

  • by:
  • 08/21/2022

Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, recently bought some air time during the Super Bowl, so he’s probably going to run for re-election.  His approval ratings, which have been ticking up over the last few months, are roughly where his predecessor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm, stood when she won her own re-election bid – which is not to say they’re terribly good, but evidently that’s not strictly necessary to win another term from the understandably grumpy Michigan electorate.

One of the big reasons they’re grumpy is Detroit, a black hole of unemployment and financial ruin around which the rest of Michigan nervously revolves.  Like other Republican governors of blue states, Snyder’s overall performance ratings are pulled down by a city he doesn’t control, run for long years by an entrenched Democrat machine.  Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin runs into similar problems with Milwaukee.

In Snyder’s case, he’s got a bit more control over Detroit these days, what with its state-appointed crisis management regime and bankruptcy procedure.  The Wall Street Journal reports on Snyder’s latest idea for dealing with the collapse of the city, which has suffered the kind of population and capital flight normally associated with zombie outbreaks:

Under a plan to be unveiled Thursday, Gov. Rick Snyder will request 50,000 special federal immigration visas over the next five years to attract foreign professionals who are willing to work and live in the city.

Mr. Snyder, in an interview Wednesday, said that “this is one way for the federal government to step up to provide significant value without cost that could have a huge impact on the city’s future.”

The visas could be scooped up by Detroit businesses seeking foreign employees, by individuals from overseas and by immigrants already in the U.S. on temporary visas, especially in the auto, information technology, life-sciences and health-care industries, Mr. Snyder said.

State officials said they hope it could help turn the tide in Detroit’s population exodus over the last 60 years, especially between 2000 and 2010, when the city lost 25% of its population, according to the U.S. Census.

The new population of Detroit would not arrive all at once:

Mr. Snyder’s plan to increase immigration to the city of about 700,000 would be staggered, with 5,000 visas requested in the first year and 15,000 in the last. He said he hasn’t yet broached the idea specifically with Obama administration officials but has spoken generally to them about repopulating the city of roughly 700,000 with mass immigration.

Asked to comment on the plan, Katherine Vargas, a White House representative, said that “President Obama is committed to honoring our nation’s legacy of innovation and competitiveness by attracting the world’s best and brightest students and entrepreneurs.”

The visas, known as EB-2s, are available to professionals with advanced degrees and individuals with exceptional ability in the sciences, arts or business. Generally, applicants require a job offer and proof that they aren’t taking a position that could be filled by a U.S. worker.

Because it is an “immigrant” visa, those who obtain it become eligible for a green card, or permanent legal residency. Typically, the U.S. makes 140,000 such visas available each year. Many years, that cap isn’t exhausted. But it isn’t clear whether the federal program could be redesigned to target a city’s specific needs, immigration attorneys said.

The Detroit Free Press describes two other related proposals from Snyder: “Opening an Office for New Americans to attract and help immigrants better adjust to life in Michigan, and designating the state as an Employer Based or EB-5 center to expedite visas and permits for immigrants who want to open business in the state with investments of at least $500,000 and 10 employee.”

The plan would therefore attract not only immigrant workers with skills in the areas Snyder outlined – auto, IT, health care – but also immigrant entrepreneurs with much-needed investment capital.  The visa requirement to demonstrate these imported workers and business owners aren’t taking jobs and opportunities away from existing citizens shouldn’t be hard to meet in Detroit, whose biggest immediate problem is the shortage of American citizens willing to live, work, or invest there.

That might be a hitch in Snyder’s proposal as well.  Even if the federal government gets on board, will skilled foreign workers and investors be eager to relocate, in massive numbers, to America’s worst city?  That’s got to be a tough call for some of the intended visa recipients.  And what prevents them from spending a little time in Detroit, deciding it’s not for them, and decamping to more desirable zip codes?  Would the “targeting to the city’s specific needs” involve some sort of requirement that both the immigrant and his business capital remain in Detroit for some minimum span of years?  Is that even possible, let alone enforceable?  Would the governors of other states object to the drain of skilled workers and entrepreneurs from their states that might result if prospective American citizens learn that applying for a “Detroit visa” has the best odds of swift success?

Would there be measures to spread the Detroit visas out among immigrant populations from different nations, in the interests of “fairness” and diversity… or would it be better to shoot for a more homogenous population in the interests of easier assimilation and civic order?  It’s unprecedented to propose re-populating a city of Detroit’s size, on a short timetable, with deliberate mass immigration, so it’s tough to think of all the questions that need to be asked about the proposal.

It’s sad to consider that Detroit can’t be re-populated with current U.S. citizens, in a nation of grinding unemployment and nearly stagnant business formation.   The United States recently dropped off the top-ten list of economically free nations, while Forbes pegs us as only the 14th best nation to start a new business.  It seems there should be a great deal of room to clear away that hostile business environment and make Detroit the kind of place that could attract existing citizens in search of opportunity – it would take some doing, to be sure, but there’s a lot of room to get it done.  Why not turn the place into Galt’s Gulch and see what happens?

Turning to mass immigration is a way to work around the pressures that might otherwise forge Detroit into such a remarkable place.  The city would, in essence, be competing with the rest of the world, not the rest of America, and that’s a far easier competition to win.  Perhaps Governor Snyder will make a compelling case that Detroit must play on that sort of global field to repopulate, attracting people who will take anyplace in America over where they’re living right now.

Does it say something bad about modern America’s loss of appetite for opportunity that no conceivable set of reforms or incentives could persuade a sufficient number of us to relocate to this once-great city, and make it great again?  Nothing less than a green card, offered to thousands of hopeful foreigners with greater hunger for risk, hard work, and reward will suffice?  So many elements of the immigration debate reflect poorly upon the native-born, or at least the elite’s opinion of them.  I never hear an argument for greater importation of highly skilled labor without thinking of all those kids racking up six figures of debt to attend American universities.

Governor Snyder has a reputation for thinking outside the box.  In Detroit, the box bears an ominous resemblance to a coffin.




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