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December 13, 2007

« The New Suburban Ghetto | Main | Downsides of Cartropolis »

Jim Russell, who's blog I generally like a lot, continues to push for a geographically targetted high-skill immigration policy aimed at revitalizing rustbelt cities.

If high-skilled immigrants are attracted to places with lots of immigrants, then why are there "lots of high-skill immigrants" at Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan, Michigan State, UB, or Case Western?

They are there for the education, and leave immediately upon getting their degrees. They are looking for something very different in the places they settle. Put simply that's opportunity and openness.

As for the quip about these immigrants leaving once they graduate, shrinking cities aren't the only places experiencing this kind of out-migration.

Of course, but he's the one proposing this as a policy to benefit that specific set of places.

Policy addressing push factors of migration is a non-starter. People leave cities and regions across the board. Finally, an H-1B visa doesn't offer much in the way of a rational choice. The visa provides entry into the United States under very specific terms.

So the proposal is this. Constrain the choices of immigrants. They then have to go to a specific group of cities. Then once they're there business will set up places to tap into them. 

Call me crazy, but there is a much easier path here. The immigrants these communities want are already sitting at their universities. They are all over Carnegie Mellon and Pitt for god sake. The first step would be to figure out why they leaving to begin with.  I probably could guess many of the answers but it's always best to talk directly to your "customers." Alice Rivlin long ago pointed out that those best positioned to deal with local economic development issues are local communities themselves, or as she put it productivity policy is best dealt with locally, not federally.

Instead of trying to "force" the issue through immigration law, wouldn't it be a whole lot easier for Rustbelt states and cities to try to retain immigrants who have already chosen to be there in the first place.  They might for example work local businesses to hire more of these folks, or encourage them to launch of join startup companies, or try to attract companies who might benefit from this talent pool, or help graduating students with U.S. immigration issues, or set up research funds that encourage them stay around and work on interesting issues. I could go on.  Or why not take a page from Russell's book and make these older cities, like Pittsburgh, the diaspora of diasporas, seeing immigrants not only as a source of skill but using them as bridges to the world - a spur to the "brain circulation" Anno Saxenian identifies.

Russell seems to see this a policy program that Rustbelt interests could insert into the ongoing debate and legislation over immigration reform. This is a classic case of bad policy ideas flowing from the best of intentions. I could go on and on, but would love to hear from my economist friends and you dear readers.


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The people proposing these kinds of immigration policies seem to have no interest in the immigrants as people, but just as a source of skills and tax dollars. The message seems to be: "Don't bring your culture, don't bring along your family, don't change our city. Just come here, earn money, invent some stuff, and pay taxes." What self-respecting immigrant would be interested in this?

(by the way, I am the granddaughter of "low-skilled" immigrants and just earned a Ph.D.)


Illegal immigrants are often described as the people who do jobs Americans don't want to do. Are skilled immigrants now to be the people who live in cities where Americans don't want to live?




Immigration is going to be a huge issue in the 2008 campaign.....Interesting comments....


It seems to me that it takes a great deal of creativity and courage for many of the so called "low skill" immigrants to make it to the USA. People with that kind of determination might be just what some "rustbelt" cities need.


Andy - I agree. As an American, I have never, ever heard as many anti-immigrant comments. Americans are scared for very good reasons actually. People who are scared look for scape-goats. Gays and immigrants are convenient ones. I see the tide turning against openness. In Toronto where we live the sentiment is quite different. As I wrote in Flight, US openness has been the core of its competitve advantage. That openness is rapidly becoming a thing of the past and will allow other countries and cities to make gradual inroads.


I agree with you, Wendy. I think that this "low-skill" and "high-skill" thing is a silly distinction.

There's also, I think, more than a little bit of racism in the immigration debate, I think.


Frankly, better pay and lower taxes would help too - Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh (at least) are not very friendly to start-ups in that way. Not to say it hasn't been done, but it's easier elsewhere. And, a decent Indian restaurant here would help! (My Indian friends all say there aren't any - the ones that are here are too Americanized for them!)



Our society seems to need someone to exploit in order to stimulate growth, now it's the new sub-class; immigrants. The truth is that the U.S. needs immigrants, because too many young Americans are living in a virtual world, one that does not require them to work. ..Regarding the older cities, perhaps it is okay for them to de-populate. The population of North America is simply re-configuring, do Detroit and Buffalo have to remain as big cities forever?


The main problem with Jim Russell's idea is that high skilled immigrants don't want to live in crap holes like Pittsburgh and Detroit and because of the Internet and globalization they can probably get a better deal in their homeland. In fact, if they are from India high tech companies are coming to them. IBM is making India their main base of operations.

Jim Russell

"So the proposal is this. Constrain the choices of immigrants. They then have to go to a specific group of cities. Then once they're there business will set up places to tap into them."

You misrepresent the proposal. The idea is to tie more H-1B visas to employers in Rust Belt cities. So, if Microsoft wants to bring more (above the current cap) overseas talent to the United States, they can do so in Rust Belt cities. The job opening must come first, not the immigrant.

What the policy will do is constrain where a US-based company can locate H-1B jobs if they desire access to more foreign-born talent. You incorrectly characterize the policy as an attempt to attact human capital. The aim of the policy is to attract companies and jobs.

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