Want to Get High-Skill Immigration Right? Think About Detroit

Rust Belt cities are hoping that immigrants can help rebuild their shrinking communities. Washington should gear policy to helping them.
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The Wall Street Journal reports today that long-suffering Rust Belt cities like St. Louis and Detroit are hoping to arrest their decline by recruiting more immigrants. But they have a problem: Foreigners usually settle near family or job opportunities. And while old-line industrial cities have plenty of charms (one hasn't truly lived until they've eaten a deep-fried brat), they are lacking not only for foreign-born communities, but also for families and workers in general.WSJ_Foreign_Population_US_Cities.JPG

Here's what places like Detroit, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh do have, however: big universities, if not inside their city limits, then fairly close by. And so unsurprisingly, some Rust Belt efforts at immigrant outreach have been focused on convincing international students to stay put after graduation. 

There's a lesson for Congress in this story. Right now, the way politicians think about high-skilled immigrants is deeply influenced by tech companies, which dubiously argue that we need more foreign talent because there's a widespread shortage of computer skills in the United States. Silicon Valley types like this angle because it justifies expanding guest worker pipelines such as the H1-B visa program, and guest workers make for fairly compliant and often inexpensive employees (some would call them "indentured"). But there's a much better justification for welcoming educated workers to our shores. They're good for growth. They can start businesses, conduct research at our universities, and join corporations. At an even more basic level, they buy homes, shop, and have families, all of which add up to more spending at local businesses. In short, they set down roots in a community, which is what Rust Belt cities are really hoping for.

Immigrants will be more likely to do those things, however, if they're given permission to stay here long-term. It's easier to invest in a home if you're certain you'll be in the U.S. more than five years down the line. Likewise, you're more likely to take career risks, or demand that you be paid what you're worth, if you're not relying on your employer to keep you in the country.

Right now, Capitol Hill is taking an all-of-the-above approach to high-skill foreigners. The immigration bill would dramatically grow the annual allotment of guest worker visas available to corporations and expand the number of green cards for educated professionals. But we should be focusing less on the former, and more on the latter -- pushing for fewer guest workers and for more green cards. We shouldn't just think about what companies want in Silicon Valley, but what people are trying to do in places like Detroit. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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