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December 13, 2007

« Third Place Evolution | Main | The New Suburban Ghetto »

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.

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Comments

daver

Yea that's a really good point. Also imagine as an immigrant you probably want a community of people from your home country to interact with and gain support to make it. My gf for example each weekend gets together with a group of other Bulgarians of all different skill levels and without these connections I bet many of them would of gone home.

RF

Daver - Absolutely. The "high-skill" (I hate the word, btw) immigrants Carter interviewed were adamant about just that. They told him essentially, "If you want us, you have to attract everybody." My students say the same thing. They do not want "special" treatment. They want to know everyone is accepted. One added: "Why do you have all the special nationality days for Italians, Irish, etc.. Why not celebrate your openness to everyone." Not saying I agree completely with that, but you get the point.

zuko

(umm..hate to agree with RF on this one, because, well, what fun it that really? but...)

If the model of social capital and its fundamental underpinnings is even considered here, it appears you would have the 'plug' with out the 'play'.

Unsettling as this abstract echo in my mind is......
rather reminds me of the 'geodesic light ball' a grade school friend was so excited about. A 'ball' made of two way mirrors, with the reflective sides lining the interior of the ball. With the introduction of a single ray of light, the beam would become "trapped" inside, bouncing around, reflecting perpetually, unable to escape.

Sorry about that, I'm going to my third place now............

z

Scott

I have to disagree. I live in Pittsburgh, always have, and have traveled as well, so I'm not a typical head in the sand western Pennsylvanian. The real reason they leave isn't the lack of an immigrant community (we have the very 1st Hindu in the US and more!) It's because the pay here is low. They can start at higher wages elsewhere, even accounting for the cost of living difference. A starting mech engineer here gets around $40,000 / yr. Why would they stay, even for a community or amenities? Just my thoughts.

RF

Scott - I agree with that and job opportunities are limited. But what they told Carter is that in addition to those factors the lack of a broad immigrant community mattered too. And it has also come out of other studies.

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