Can Immigrants Spur Rust Belt Recovery?

As Rust Belt cities look for ways to dig themselves out of economic decline, it would appear immigrant workers are taking center stage in the conversation. Places like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis are all grappling with ways to make immigrants a part of their labor forces, and expand their populations, where, in the case of Detroit, population has shrunk drastically over the last 40 years, down from 1.5 million in 1970 to around 678,000 as of 2012. For cities trying to escape recession, growing populations typically contribute to their doing so.

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However, the population has decreased in Detroit and the others for a reason: economic opportunity is lacking. Businesses are not expanding here, and states are having a hard time attracting entrepreneurial talent to areas that grow more like ghost towns by the day. A comprehensive immigration plan, however, might allow for some help.

Currently around half of immigrant workers under the H1-B visa program come for jobs in the computer space, with tech companies claiming a lack of domestic talent for these positions. However, inquiries into the matter have shown such a claim to be questionable, as more computer science majors graduate every year than are employed in the sector. Regardless, Congress has been quite taken with the claims of the companies in need of such workers, and guest worker programs have been designed around their needs for some time now. This has resulted in a situation in which immigrants with bachelor’s degrees come to the U.S. to work, but are irrevocably bound to the wills of their employers. They are unable to negotiate wages, move from job to job, and perhaps most importantly, start their own businesses.

For failing cities to expand, on just the most basic level, they need larger, more productive populations to drive growth and increase each city’s tax base. To accomplish this, however, would require a reworking of the H1-B program, and as The Atlantic‘s Jordan Weissmann points out, “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.”

In other words, he argues, we should be focusing more on getting green cards into the hands of immigrants. This way they can settle down in communities, start businesses, and contribute to the economic future of the cities in which they live.

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For its part, Congress has included a provision in the upcoming immigration bill to provide more green cards to high-skilled foreign workers. However, it has also greatly expanded the H1-B program, allowing for 180,000 visas, potentially — up from 65,000 previously. Whatever the means of getting skilled labor into the country, researchers have found that it has benefited American employees as well, driving up wages and contributing nearly $615 billion dollars to the U.S. economy.

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