Federal Immigration Policy Should Cater to Local Needs

[Originally published by the Urbanophile]

Baltimore, MD–Last Sunday, as the issue was being prepared for Congress, I was witnessing the remunerative effects of immigration firsthand on city streets just an hour north. This was while at Chicken Rico, a Peruvian hotspot in Baltimore’s Highlandtown neighborhood. After eating a plate of chicken and plantains–priced, as usual, at under $5—I stepped outside onto Eastern Avenue. This crowded thoroughfare is the center of Baltimore’s Hispanic community, which stretches a half-mile through the city’s southeast side, even merging into what’s known as “Greektown.”

But Highlandtown wasn’t always like this. Although once working-class, it suffered, like much of the city, through decades of industrial decline. In 2000 the City Paper quoted an official who represented it in the 1990s, when it teemed with “absentee landlords, dysfunctional families, loss of businesses,” and a robust drug trade. Its revival, just then beginning, has continued the last decade because of public improvements, and gentrification in nearby Canton. But this revival is also due to immigration, suggesting a potential long-term fix for Baltimore, and other declining cities.

After all Baltimore, a city that for decades was mostly black and white—and heavily segregated—has reestablished its role as an immigrant enclave, adding 20,000 the last two decades. During this it lost 115,000 people overall, mirroring similar population declines in every decade since the 1950s, and making one wonder what would’ve become of the city without these new foreigners.

According to a report by the Abell Foundation, a local non-profit, it occurred here in Baltimore because of the communal nature of immigrants, who after settling somewhere often invite friends from back home. But it’s continuing because of conscious efforts to attract them under Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. In 2011 the mayor announced an initiative to add 10,000 families to Baltimore, declaring immigrants instrumental for this. A year later she signed an order preventing policemen from questioning people’s citizenship status. She also started Spanish-only classes within city-run schools, and community groups that help immigrants with paperwork. As a result housing is being filled and businesses started in once-dying neighborhoods, not only by Hispanics, but West Indians, Jews, and Koreans. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, these and other immigrants now compile 9% of Baltimore’s population but 12% of its workforce, and a whopping quarter of its small-business owners.

Baltimore is an example of how the benefits of immigration can vary by locality. In many growing municipalities, immigrants have overwhelmed the services, causing resentment and even legal backlashes. But in declining cities, they’re considered essential for survival. This includes not only in Baltimore, but in Detroit, where “Mexicantown” is one of the only functioning neighborhoods, and heavily-Arabic Dearborn one of its nicer suburbs. Immigration has also helped St. Louis, Birmingham, and Richmond, VA; and has accelerated growth in emerging but relatively-homogenous cities like Charlotte and Nashville. Its benefits were recently validated by both the Cato and Manhattan Institutes, who published papers linking immigration with greater innovation and productivity.

But how can the issue become localized when enforced at federal level? One way, said demographer Joel Kotkin in an interview, is for declining areas to attract, on their own, the immigrants that do exist. This doesn’t necessarily mean taking Baltimore’s aggressive measures, but simply providing the same things, like jobs and affordable housing, that also attract natives. In his article “California Needs More Immigrants”, he explained that the state’s failure at providing this has caused sharp immigration declines, which have dovetailed with its economic decline overall. Instead immigrants now settle for states with lower taxes and living costs, like Texas, and that to attract them back California must adopt similar policies.

Nonetheless Kotkin also saw a “compelling argument” for a federal program that directed immigrants to where they were most needed. This was explored recently in an article by Nancy Scola about Canada’s “Provincial Nominee Program”, which enables provinces “to self-determine the sort of immigrants they’d like to admit.” The program has matched immigrants and their skills with relevant locations and industries, creating, for example, an influx of garment workers in Winnipeg and truck drivers in Saskatchewan. The same strategy, she wrote, could be implemented in the U.S. with “place-based visas” that enable states to select their preferred number of immigrants, who must then remain for a given time.

Of course this would limit both the number and the quality of locations available to immigrants, generating, for example, what Scola imagined might be a robust “Detroit Visa” program. But it would still grant states more autonomy than federal policy now does in dealing with the issue. And while some states would use this stringently, others would become immigrant welcoming mats, only to watch their inner city neighborhoods become hotspots for cheap eating, eclectic shopping, and revived entrepreneurialism.