Imported from Detroit: Rationality in Immigration Policy

As Congress and the President square off over the debt ceiling, a plague of question marks seems to be raining down on the U.S. economy, and people are getting nervous – not just on Wall Street, but on Main Street, as well. To some, it may seem a strange time to promote immigration reform as a remedy for our economic woes, but several leading entrepreneurs and executives are working with big-city mayors to do just that. As we reported last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is spearheading this drive to create more immigrant-friendly policies at the federal, state, and local levels, to attract more ambitious entrepreneurs and creative minds from overseas. (See Study: Immigrants Drive Our Economy, MurthyBlog, 25.Jul.2011.)

Mayor Bloomberg spoke on the issue last week at an immigration conference at Detroit’s Wayne State University. Bloomberg made waves several weeks ago when he suggested on NBC’s Meet the Press that immigrants could repopulate rust belt cities like Detroit, and reinvigorate their economies. Bloomberg has not backed down, and told the Wayne State conference, “Immigrants make jobs, rather than take them. We all benefit.” (See Snyder Touts Benefits of Immigration at WSU Conference, by Kim Kozlowski, The Detroit News, 18.Jul.2011.) According to the Detroit News, Bloomberg said, “…Detroit needs to start to recruit more immigrants to the city and to work in Washington to change immigration policies to make it easier for investors to come to the city.”

The idea that immigration can help to rebuild our cities is not new, but it’s certainly a harder sell these days. Almost ten years ago, an Abell Foundation study recommended that Baltimore attract more immigrants, to stem population losses and rebuild the city’s urban core. (See Attracting New Americans Into Baltimore’s Neighborhoods: Immigration is the Key to Reversing Baltimore’s Population Decline, by Bruce A. Morrison and Paul Donnelly, Abell Foundation, Dec 2002.) According to the Abell study, attracting immigrants is only half the battle; holding onto immigrant populations requires careful policy choices at the local level. Retaining immigrants requires “recognition and respect from community leaders; job mobility; improved housing; accessible primary and secondary education; and responsive policing and other public services” – all of the things state and local governments are good at, and can implement without having to wait for federal help.

Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder took a similar tack – no small feat for any elected official in the industrial heartland, where concerns about job security and workforce competition run especially high. The Detroit Free Press reports that Governor Snyder told the Wayne State conference that:

“…he wants to encourage foreign students to stay in the state once they have completed their education at state colleges…. He said he wants to find ways to connect foreign students to Michigan businesses so student visas become work visas more easily. Snyder also said he plans to introduce a Global Michigan initiative to make it easier for immigrants and refugees to find jobs in their fields. And he envisions a Cultural Ambassador Program to encourage people from different ethnic groups to get more involved in their communities.”(See Gov. Rick Snyder to conference: Immigration can help Detroit, State, by Kathleen Gray, Detroit Free Press, 19.Jul.2011.)

Snyder rejected Arizona-style enforcement legislation as unproductive and divisive, instead calling for measures that “embrace immigration in a positive way,” according to the Detroit Free Press; for his part, Bloomberg suggested that Detroit recruit immigrants from states that have recently passed anti-immigrant legislation.

Bloomberg is known for making bold pronouncements, and letting the chips fall where they may. As a businessman-cum-politician, with no small personal fortune, he can well afford to speak his mind. At a time when many public officials are afraid of their own shadows – especially when it comes to immigration – it is encouraging to see a rust-belt Republican governor taking some political risk, bucking the conventional wisdom on immigration, not to mention the general sympathies of his party. With the American auto industry rebounding after many years on the ropes, perhaps Michiganders now have the confidence to reach for bold solutions. Given the economic benefits of immigration, these policies are eminently rational, and a healthy antidote to the enforcement-only legislation that states like Arizona, Florida, and Georgia are living to regret. They’re also refreshingly, bracingly positive.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.