Why Rick Snyder's Plan to Conscript Immigrants to Fix Detroit Won't Work


Michigan Governor Rick Snyder seems to have hit a motherlode of bad ideas to save Detroit last week. First, he announced a bailout plan that'll only feed more profligacy by the city's political classes.

Now, he has decided that he wants to repopulate the city with high-tech immigrants. To that end, he's planning on

asking President Barack Obama to give him a special dispensation of 50,000 EB-2 visas. Although details are skimpy, these immigrants will be required to live and work in Detroit for some time in the hopes that their superior knowledge and entrepreneurial skills will reverse half-a-century of population decline, create jobs and perk up Motown's sad economy.

"Isn't that how we made our country great, through immigrants?" said Mr. Snyder.

Err, yes and no.

Reason and I are all for more immigration now, tomorrow and forever.

I am also for federalzing America's immigration system so that local municipalities have more flexibility in recruiting immigrants that best serve their labor needs, just like Canada does.

But the notion that cities like Detroit can conscript immigrants and watch a comeback happen is fanciful at best, as I wrote in this Bloomberg column last year. Immigrants are ordinary mortals, not miracle workers.

There is no doubt that newcomers are very good at finding and seizing openings in an economy that the native-born residents don't see or don't want. But these opportunities have to exist.

Folks like Snyder often point to examples of Korean storeowners reviving blighted New York neighborhoods in the 1970s. But as I noted:

New York in the 1970s wasn't quite as desolate a place as Detroit is today. Its population losses were not as severe. The financial industry had not retrenched as badly as Detroit's auto industry has. And its government wasn't as badly broken. New York got a federal loan to avoid bankruptcy, to be sure—but not until President Gerald Ford was convinced it was serious about dealing with its structural fiscal imbalances, not to mention crime and crumbling schools. That is when the city became a magnet for immigrants who speeded up its turnaround.

Crucial to whether immigrants can boost a city's prospects or not is why the city went downhill in the first place. Immigrants easily reversed New York's population decline because New Yorkers weren't leaving the city because opportunities had dried up. They were leaving for greener pastures elsewhere. That is not the case in Detroit and other Rust Belt cities, for that matter. As I noted:

[I]mmigrants 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.

So what should Detroit, Baltimore, and other struggling cities do to become more attractive to immigrants? Offer them a decent quality of life at an affordable price. This means improving schools, tackling crime, creating an entrepreneur-friendly climate and keeping taxes reasonable.

You can't pour high-octane fuel into a broken engine and expect it to run, folks. Gotta fix the engine first.