New Visa Program Can Revive America's Dying Cities

A new immigration visa category — call it a UR-1 visa for “Urban Renewal” — is the only intelligent solution to the socioeconomic trends that are blighting our big cities like Detroit and sending them teetering toward insolvency.

Nothing hurts brand USA more than the bankruptcy of Detroit, a city that was the nation’s fourth biggest as recently as the late 1940s but had slid all the way down to 18th place by 2010. Between 1990 and 2010 its population dropped from 1,028,000 to 701,000 — a 32% plunge. Unless that plunge, which continues, is reversed through intelligent national action, the city practically synonymous with America’s rise to the world’s leading industrial power will literally disintegrate into a ghost town within two decades, maybe less.

Detroit isn’t the only big American city on the path to oblivion. Baltimore, which ranked sixth in the nation with 950,000 residents in 1950, has seen its population plunge to 621,000 and 26th place by 2010 — a whopping 34% drop during a span in which the nation has more than doubled its population. Cleveland has gone from the nation’s sixth largest, with 900,000 in 1930 to 48th place and 391,000 residents in 2010 — a 57% free fall while the nation’s population tripled.

Other large cities that have come to symbolize aspects of America’s greatness are likely to meet the same fate, albeit along a somewhat less precipitous trajectory. Philadelphia, the nation’s third largest city with about 2.1 million people in 1950, is about to drop to fifth place with less than 1.5 million today. Even Chicago — the longtime second city demoted to third place — is struggling to cling to its 2.7 million residents while cities like Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas and San Jose are surging up the top-10 list.

What’s the difference between losing cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland and gainers like Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix and San Antonio? Immigrants. Contrary to what one might expect based on our immigration policy, the kind of immigrants who have made the big difference aren’t those coming over with a $500,000 or $1 million in investment capital under the EB-5 visa program.

As I pointed out in March, only 3,800 EB-5 applications had been received during the entire 2011 fiscal year, of which 80% are Chinese. We’ve attracted much bigger numbers through the H-1B visa program which seeks to attract highly educated immigrants with technical skills. Unfortunately, those programs aren’t likely to help cities like Detroit regain their economic traction.

People with money and skills go to thriving meccas with an abundance of jobs and growth potential — Southern California, Silicon Valley, Northern Virginia, New York, Austin, the Raleigh-Durham tech triangle.

Who would be willing to repopulate and rebuild neighborhoods blighted by weeds, graffiti, crumpled chain-link fences and dilapidated houses with rusting iron bars on the windows? Immigrants with an abundance of energy and motivation but not the opportunity to use them in their home countries, people willing to toil for decades under what most of us would consider intolerable living conditions so they can give their kids the chance to grow up in a land of opportunities.

Few native-born Americans — or skilled or moneyed immigrants — would be willing to make the kind of bargain needed by cities like Detroit or Cleveland or Baltimore or Philadelphia.

That’s why we need a new visa program to attract young, energetic and hardworking immigrants. Let them come over and earn their green cards by living for seven years inside any of our blighted urban areas. Require them to be reasonably healthy, literate and part of a family unit with kids. From the standpoint of economic benefit to the US, a couple willing to work to build family life in a blighted neighborhood is worth at least as much as an investor willing to spend $500,000 on a questionable investment. Hard-working settlers with little money and few skills but the desire to make a new home built out of the wilderness a thriving society that became New York City, New Jersey, and all the other parts of the United States.

For a more recent example of how opening our doors to more energetic young families can keep the national economy on the right track, we can look to Los Angeles.

The Watts Riots of 1965 had sent the few Jewish merchants and white residents who remained in central Los Angeles fleeing to the Valley and to Orange County. The riots were a symptom of two trends — the creation of a large African American under-class due to the scaling back of the defense industries that had mushroomed during World War II and the Korean War, and the harsh tactics used by the Los Angeles Police Department to keep Blacks out of white areas. Regardless of the precise cause, south central Los Angeles became filled with empty stores, weed-choked yards and broken windows, just like the deep band of dilapidation that surrounds Detroit’s financial district. There was no prospect of reversing the decay, and Los Angeles faced the specter of economic collapse like the one now facing Detroit.

What saved Los Angeles from succumbing to fast-spreading urban blight is the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1965 which effectively ended the half-century ban against immigrants from Asia and other non-western-European regions.

By the late 1960s new immigrants from Korea began moving into LA’s bleakest neighborhoods. They cleaned up and reopened shops and restored houses and apartment buildings. Small grocery markets and eateries began opening in neighborhoods that had been without them for years. By the early 1970s a stretch of Olympic Boulevard and a few Western and Vermont Avenues boasted enough Korean shops and restaurants to earn the nickname “Koreatown”. By the late 1970s Koreatown was the backbone of Los Angeles, linking downtown with the Miracle Mile, Beverly Hills and the Westside in a contiguous band of vibrant commercial activity that not even the 1992 Los Angeles Riots could break.

Of course the rebirth of central Los Angeles also owed to an influx of immigrants from other Asian nations as well as from Mexico and central America. Very few of these newcomers brought large amounts of money or specialized skills. They mostly brought their willingness to work at whatever economic activity would produce enough to afford their families a roof and food — attending gas stations, working in sweatshops, opening hole-in-the-wall shops, eateries and dry cleaners. That was enough. Today they live in the suburbs and their children are the professionals and business owners of one of the world’s most vibrant cities. A city once seen as a symbol of middle-class flight has become a magnet for the most moneyed and skilled people from around the world.

To jump start a similar revitalization in cities like Detroit, we need to remember the concept behind the INA of 1965: shedding prejudices about what kinds of immigrants are needed to fuel America’s economic and social vitality. Yes, we need highly skilled immigrants. But when we institutionalize narrow-minded notions of what kinds of people can be assets to our society, we are planting the seeds of America’s decline into a society of exclusionary geriatrics like Japan and, increasingly, much of western Europe.

Ultimately, the issue isn’t whether it behooves us to save Detroit and other cities on the brink of collapse. The issue is whether we remain a dynamic enough society to continue to invite immigrants with little more than high energy levels and big dreams to tame the new wilderness opening up in large swatches of America — cities that have fallen victim to bad social and economic policies.