Two Rustbelt bloggers" (here and here) quote immigration lawyer Richard Herman who advocates "“high skill immigration zones” which would essentially enable companies in selected older cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo hire international talent as they wish.
Sounds great at first blush, but hold on a second. I'll leave it to my economist colleagues to pick apart the inefficiencies of this kind of geographic targetting. These places already have lots of high-skill immigrants - take a walk around Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan, Michigan State, UB, or Case Western any day of the week. There's a reason they leave after they graduate.
Furthermore, I get very nervous when the discussion turns to certain types of immigrants. Some years ago my friend, Pittsburgh native, Don Carter convened a series of workshops and panels with immigrants on immigration. One of the main conclusions was that high-skill immigrants were not attracted to places with high-skill immigrants but rather to places with lots of immigrants. Sure those places were open and tolerant, but they also offered a range of services (groceries, restaurants, shops, etc.) that the higher-skill immigrants desired. Here's a story I told in Flight that helps puts this in perspective.
In 2003, I was the guest of (former) Iowa Governor Thomas Vilsack at a major conference on the future of the state’s economy. A key theme of the conference was Iowa’s need for immigration. Indeed, Vilsack had first made a name for himself in some political circles by establishing a controversial program to revitalize Iowa’s economy by making the state “the Ellis Island of the Midwest.” As is often the case, much of the conversation at the economic conference revolved around the need for Iowa to attract “high-skill” immigrants – Indian software developers, Chinese engineers, and European biotechnologists. At one point, a young man raised his hand and rose up out of the audience.
"Governor, political leaders, distinguished guests, with all due respect, I’m not so sure about all of this talk of attracting ‘high-skill’ immigrants. Those skills are important, we know. But, in my experience, it’s not such an easy distinction to make, between high-skilled and low-skilled. Especially over time. Low-skill immigrants often turn into high-skill immigrants. Maybe not always in a single lifetime. But over the lifetime of a family, or a community. Take my example. I’m the son of Mexican immigrants, both low-skilled. I’m also a recent graduate of Grinnell College[one of the most respected small liberal arts colleges in the country]. Of my graduating class, only five of us have decided to stay in state of Iowa. Just five. And you know what? All five were the sons and daughters of so-called low-skilled immigrant families. We stayed in this state, and in our communities, because these were places that gave so much opportunity to us, and to our families. We relish the chance to give back.”
The young man sat back down to roaring applause.
Or in my case: my grandparents had zero formal education, my dad middle school, my mom finished high-school ...
What matters is openness - across the board.