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Jan. 28 2014 12:35 PM

Should Detroit Be Allowed to Issue Its Own Visas to Immigrants?

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Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan is planning to ask for federal approval for a plan aimed at “bringing 50,000 immigrants to the bankrupt city [of Detroit] over five years.” Under the plan, immigrants coming to the U.S. under visas aimed at those with “advanced degrees or exceptional abilities in science, business or the arts” would be “required to live and work in Detroit, a city that has fallen to 700,000 residents from 1.8 million in the 1950s.”

Brandon Fuller of NYU’s Stern Business School meanwhile suggests that rather than giving Detroit a share of existing EB-2 visas, as Snyder is suggesting, the federal government should make additional visas available for state-based programs.

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Shikha Dalmia, writing at Reason, is skeptical about the idea, writing that “Immigrants 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 results.”

There’s also the problem that a legal mechanism doesn’t currently exist to force recipients to remain in Detroit once they arrive. This has been an issue in Canada, where a similar plan has been tried at the provincial level.

It’s true that immigrants aren’t a magic elixir that will make the urban desert bloom. But the plan proposed by Snyder, a Republican, comes amid proposals by a number of struggling Rust Belt cities to attract their “fair share” of immigrants. If a number of states set up similar programs, they would still have to compete to make themselves attractive to new arrivals. 

It’s not a magic bullet, and comprehensive reform at the national level still seems preferable. But absent that, it seems worth giving cities like Detroit the opportunity to try.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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