Opinion | Give visas to skilled immigrants in places Michigan is stagnant

Steve Tobocman

Steve Tobocman is director of Global Detroit, which documents immigrants’ impact on regional economies. 

Five years ago, then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan stood together with the Detroit City Council at a Detroit manufacturing facility to call for an allocation of 50,000 visas for immigrants wishing to move to Detroit to help revitalize the city’s economy and housing market. The proposal was bold and, without a champion in Washington, never moved beyond the headlines.

Cut to April of this year. That’s when the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington, D.C.-based policy research group focused on economic growth, issued a groundbreaking report that lays out a compelling case for a place-based visa, modeled on similar programs in Canada and Australia. The report has received attention in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and other national publications for its potential to stem population loss, decline and stagnation in significant parts of America.

There are solid economic reasons why Mayor Duggan has identified population gain as the single most important metric to track his administration’s success. Detroit doesn’t suffer from too much competition among its residents for a fixed number of jobs, but suffers from depopulation and the massive loss of economic activity and opportunity that accompanies losing two-thirds of your peak population. Detroit’s experience is more severe than most urban areas, but the economic realities of population loss or even stagnant growth are apparent across the American landscape.

About half of U.S. counties are losing population each year. Even more dramatic, however, is the fact that 80 percent of U.S. counties have lost prime working-age population (people aged 25-54) over the past decade. In fact, it is estimated that by 2037, two-thirds of U.S. counties will have fewer prime working-age residents than they did in 1997, despite population projections that suggest the nation’s population will have grown by 100 million people.

The reality is that population changes in America are uneven. The industrial and farming portions of the Midwest and Northeast are experiencing population loss or stagnation, while the West and Sun Belt are experiencing growth. 

While much of this data can be explained by the population loss in rural America, several large urban counties ‒ most notably Wayne County (Detroit), Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) and St. Louis County (St. Louis) ‒ comprise a large portion of America suffering the impacts of population loss. Six percent of counties ‒ 84 in total ‒ account for 41 percent of the U.S. population who live in shrinking communities.

The EIG report also sheds new light on the economic consequences of population loss and stagnant growth, detailing impacts on housing, local fiscal budgets and what EIG labels economic “dynamism.” In each context, the EIG report makes clear there is a causal link at work — population loss and/or stagnant growth causes these economic problems.

EIG’s proposal stems from the demographic crisis in the U.S. endemic to stagnant population growth and rapid aging. These trends have raised concerns that the United States will soon face the serious demographic problems that Japan and parts of Western Europe have confronted in recent decades. The demographic data in EIG’s report documents “a clear supply problem for struggling places ‒ one that upskilling efforts or training programs alone would do little to address.”

Noting that 90 percent of skilled immigrants live in the top one-third of counties with the highest housing prices, EIG’s proposal focuses on developing a national place-based visa for skilled immigrants to be added to the number of immigrants already allowed into the nation. The proposal draws from current successful programs in Canada and Australia, as well as the current U.S. J-1 visa waiver for medical doctors serving rural areas with chronic health care worker shortages.

As proposed by EIG, the so-called “Heartland Visa” would only be available to communities confronting chronic population stagnation or loss who decided to “opt in” to the program. Heartland Visa holders would be permitted to compete in the open labor market within the communities offering them a visa. The visa would provide them a pathway to permanent residency and the restrictions on where they can live and work would only be in place for a period of time. The Canadian experience suggests that retention will remain high after the residency restriction expires.

America’s demographic trends and their negative economic consequences are undeniable. Across the American heartland, increasing numbers of communities, state and local elected officials, chambers of commerce, economic development leaders and other mainstream actors are actively working to welcome immigrants as a means to building regional economic prosperity. 

A Heartland Visa would offer struggling inner-cities and rural communities across the Midwest and Northeast ‒ the areas most impacted by stagnant population growth or loss ‒ an opportunity to overcome these impacts. It is extremely unlikely, of course, the U.S. Congress would consider such a proposal without comprehensive immigration reform, a necessary public policy agenda that appears completely stuck in the current political climate. Still, the Heartland Visa study offers new and substantive empirical evidence that immigration is critical to our nation’s prosperity and future ‒ and a path to help us get there. 

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Mon, 07/29/2019 - 9:26am

“...... without a champion in Washington, never moved beyond the headlines”. What does that say about our current Senators and the representatives from Detroit? It tells me they are worthless democrats who will only do something if it makes the other side look bad.

Ann Farnell
Mon, 07/29/2019 - 9:51am

Arjay, What it tells me is that gridlock in Washington very much affects us at the local level. Your comment tells me that your lack of fundamental civics knowledge drives you to see issues entirely through a partisan lens which fails to illuminate much of anything.

S. A. M.
Mon, 07/29/2019 - 10:24am

No! Give AMERICANS the skills to do these jobs! Companies used to train their labor, then they outsourced it to collages who make us pay for the "privilege" of being able to do the job. Make companies train again and you won't have any shortages! The companies will still get most of the "profit pie", just not every single crumb of it like they do now! We don't need more people here, we need the people here to be given the skills employers want. No foreign labor!

Almighty Dollar
Mon, 07/29/2019 - 10:31am

Give them to the unskilled en masse. Detroit and a few other cities would be revitalized with all kinds of day workers, families, more vital neighborhoods and people willing to work 12 hour days. It may seem inhumane, but they want to work and add value. 80% of all the undocumented are in California and there is a reason people there don't mind as much. They have eyes, can see and are able to think.

It's great to have educated immigrants, but will they occupy Detroit? Or just live in the suburbs and go to their engineering jobs?

Kathie Gourlay
Mon, 07/29/2019 - 10:32am

The other articles in today's "Bridge Michigan" talk about a coming Alzheimer's crisis in Michigan. We have an aging population. We need more young, energetic immigrants to take care of the elderly inform and pay taxes to help support them. It does not take a lot of skill for most of these jobs.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 07/29/2019 - 11:54am

Only a democrat, who represented Detroit no less, would advocate for something to depress wages in very the district he used to represent.


Steve Tobocman
Mon, 07/29/2019 - 2:59pm

Kevin, if you want to debate evidence, I'd be happy to show you the mountains of reports that correlate immigration growth with higher wages. The economic pie is not fixed. The number of jobs that exist is not fixed. Wages are not fixed. If those were true, with the massive population loss that Detroit has experienced, workers here would be fully employed at the highest wages.

Economies are dynamic. More skilled labor--and educating and training our domestic population should be priority #1, but it is a long-term and expensive endeavor--helps companies grow, prosper, and expand, both in terms of profits, as well as jobs and wages. New immigrants can be a rapid way to achieve those goals.

Compare Detroit and Toronto. How do you explain the last 40 years of divergence? They are a high growth, high wage region and Detroit has really struggled. They are 50% foreign-born and we are 10%, below the national average.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 07/29/2019 - 8:38pm

Mr. Tobocman, if you want to argue reports...then I'm game.

I can begin with "The Wage Impact of the Marielitos: A Reappraisal" by Prof. George J. Borjas which re-examined the economic effect of the Mariel Boatlift in Florida. Interesting statistic: The wages of High School dropouts in Miami dropped between 10 to 30 percent during that period.

Or, I can cite the NAS report "The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration". According to their report from between the years of 1960 and 1999, when the labor supply was increased by just 1%, the median incomes of Americans across the United States dropped between 0.5 to 1.7% based upon their ethnic background. Again, that's with just a 1% increase in labor supply.

Shall I continue?

Your other arguments are non sequitur.

Of course the economy isn't fixed (the last recession proved that quite clearly).

Of course the number of jobs isn't fixed (see above).

But seriously... wanting to bend the wage curve downward by diluting the labor supply?

Big AG loves to cite that it cannot fill positions because of the current immigration quotas. That these immigrants perform the jobs that "Americans won't do".

But they ALWAYS leave out six important words: "...for what the market will bear."

They also leave out the other fact that automation had a very big hand in controlling labor costs.

The EIG report you cited mentions, "Yet, the data presented here outlines a clear supply problem for struggling places — one that upskilling efforts or training programs alone would do little to address."

It goes on claiming that automation will not play a significant role in addressing that supply problem because,"...it will be less profitable for the company to take on such an investment when a large share of the workforce is older" (page 24).

The numbers being bandied about by the likes of Brookings earlier this year disagree with EIG's assessment. They peg the number of jobs lost to automation to be in the 36-million range in the coming years.

What do you intend to propose when the labor market self-adjusts itself in that time?

Will you tell those immigrants, "Whoops, sorry, but we don't need you any longer. You may go now."

I highly doubt that they'll be very conducive to that idea.

Steve Tobocman
Tue, 07/30/2019 - 9:48am

Kevin, first, I appreciate a thoughtful reply and your use of studies.
David Card also analyzed the Mariel Boat Lift and concluded "First, the Mariel immigration had essentially no effect on the wages or employment outcomes of non-Cuban workers in the Miami labor market. Second, and perhaps even more surprising, the Mariel immigration had no strong effect on the wages of other Cubans." The Impact of the Mariel Boat Lift on the Miami Labor Market, Industiral and Labor Relations Review. Giovanni Perri also has weighed in supporting Card's conclusion. I believe the debate here is whether you choose high school education and lower or just lower than a high school education. Your citation of Borjas suggests that we can debate Borjas and Perri until the cows come home. I am not sure either of us can convince each other.
The National Academy of Sciences study, however, I think is a great summary of these economics. There are small wage effects in the short-term and some local fiscal costs from immigration, but these are outweighed by growth impacts and long-term wealth gains for our community. "We found little to no negative effects on overall wages and employment of native-born workers in the longer term,” said Francine D. Blau, an economics professor at Cornell University who led the group that produced the 550-page report. The report called immigration “integral to the nation’s economic growth”
Now, I could load up on my own set of reports and we could go back-and-forth. But the reality is that Michigan has labor and demographics problem. I am all for improving our schools, reinvesting in our workers, investing in infrastructure. And for more immigration. The nation is strengthened, not weakened by it.
Please, help me understand how Toronto had such growth and Detroit has not.
Again, I appreciate your comments. It's healthy to discuss these issues without demagoguing them.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 10:18pm

Mr. Tobocman, let me just start by just saying that I do appreciate your candor, along with your willingness to interact with Commenters.

The reason I had not addressed your comparison with Toronto earlier is because there is one significant problem which accompanied increasing immigration in that city.

That under-reported aspect is the fact that those immigrants are not only growing accustomed to the generosity of the Canadian Government's benevolence (i.e. shelter, daily necessities and "salary"), but it's becoming increasingly apparent that those very same immigrants are not willing to assimilate into their host country in the process.

The Canadian Government is still scrambling to find adequate housing for this influx and is placing them literally anywhere they can find room , such as in hotels and college dorms.

The former was getting a lot of attention about a year ago.

Hotel Guests, not realizing who else was staying in the same location as them, began reporting that their hotel was becoming "dangerous", "uncomfortable and undesirable". This is just the short list of their descriptions.

A Canadian media outlet sent a reporter to do a story on the veracity those reports.

This except from that story is very telling:

"The reporter attempted to speak with a guest, but hotel management quickly intervened and said the refugees are “nervous” having media in the building since the arson attempt.

Global News was asked to leave the hotel three hours after checking in, even though the reporter was a paying customer."


The unwillingness of newer immigrants to assimilate here in America was also a factor mentioned in the NAS report I had cited earlier.

We are having similar problems right here and now with immigrants who won't raise their standards to become comparable with ours.

Just last week The Detroit Free Press wrote about the Burgerim restaurant in Dearborn that won't open up because of local reactions like this:

"“I told you, you are not like us,” someone wrote in a Facebook message to Zahr. “You have Palestinian and Lebanese blood on your hand if you open up that joint.”

In another incident, he set up a tent with free burgers outside the soon-to-open Royal Oak store for Ramadan, a Muslim holiday in April, but he said the tent was destroyed the next morning. "


Bringing in even more immigrants unwilling to assimilate won't cause a repeat of that situation how exactly?

After answering your question, I would appreciate it if you would answer one of mine: You cited Prof. Blau's comments pertaining to the long-term effects of this proposal on American Workers. But you didn't address my point regarding the effect of automation in the long-term, as well.

If history is any indication (and it typically is), in the not-too-distant future, there will eventually be a surplus of workers and a shortage of jobs for the same.

What then?

candace flowers
Mon, 07/29/2019 - 2:38pm

Democrat 2020 Platform & Goals:
-Open Borders.
-Sanctuary Cities.
-Decriminalize illegal entry into our country.
-De-fund & terminate Border Patrol & ICE
--Same sex marriages.
-Disarming Americans.
-End all deportations of illegal aliens (if you get here, you stay.)
-Voting rights for illegal aliens.
-Pack the courts with radical liberal judges (Like the 9th circuit)
-Increase refugee's from the third world.
-Illegal aliens allowed to hold public office.
-Free Abortions for all (Taxpayer funded)
-The green new deal.
-End of Electoral College
-Free Medicare care for all including non citizens (taxpayer funded)
-Raise Minimum Wage (expect massive reduction in full time jobs & loss of health benefits)
-Adolescents vote.
-!00% free college for all, including non citizens. (tax payer funded)
-Reparations for every rac "harmed" by the white man.
-Convicts, Terrorists voting.
-Susie & Bobby using the same restrooms.
-Late term abortions up to 9 months.
-Tax increases.
-Pay check for every person in the US even if they choose not to work.

*Sources: Straight from the Democrat's themselves. View their speeches / debates on you tube. Pay particular attention to when the moderator asks the candidates to "raise your hand" if in favor questions.

The choice is yours.

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 9:30am

I almost wish Bridge wouldn't publish these nonsense comments, but then again, it's good to know what's being peddled by Fox and Breitbart

Mon, 07/29/2019 - 4:42pm

The idea above makes sense and has been shown to work in other countries. American doctors and medical workers are getting incentives to take rural medical jobs through forgiveness of college debt, etc. Many companies already have training programs in place for semi-skilled workers. However, a skilled worker in many fields needs a 4 year degree or more.
I doubt than anyone in this discussion is a native American...hence, we are all immigrants.
Most Americans, democrats included, want secure borders, but also understand the value of immigrants in the US and how desperately we need a fair system of immigration. Most Americans are also proud to protect marginalized people such as those seeking asylum from life-threatening situations.
No serious person is advocating for open borders. That is a scare tactic. Just like taking all the guns. Complete hype. Total BS. Be careful who and what you listen to. They may also tell you we never went to the moon...

Ren Farley
Mon, 07/29/2019 - 4:44pm

Former U of M president Duderstadt proposed giving a Green Card to any non-citizen who graduated from a Michigan college with a STEM degree. It is easy to overlook
the stagnation of Michigan's population and the long term consequence that will have in slowing economic growth. Encouraging much more immigration to our state is an important strategy. I hope that will be serious discussion of this proposal. We know that in many cities neighborhoods that were at risk or decline were revitalized by the immigrants who arrived after 1968.

Mon, 07/29/2019 - 7:35pm

We need not only just skilled immigrants. There are piles of unskilled jobs that no one wishes for their kids, no matter what they pay!! Dish washers, drywall hangers, poultry processors, painters, nursing home workers, hotel housekeepers, does anyone really aspire for their kids to do these jobs? We desperately need a way to bring people in to fill these yes vital positions. Not the just jobs that everyone wants.

Fred Swartz
Tue, 07/30/2019 - 1:50pm

Immigration is not a solution to our problems, except perhaps in the short run. If Americans won't take low paying jobs, increase wages until they will. If we need more high-tech talent, increase educational incentives to create it. If some places are unattractive to live and work in, fix them or face an uncomfortable reality. Immigrants are not the solution.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 2:53pm

Fred, first we don't have the employable people, let alone folks who want to do the jobs. Second we already listen to complaints about the high cost of nursing homes and food just for two - where does your solution get us? Even higher costs and robots working in nursing homes! Truck lines can't fill their positions even with starting drivers out making $50k per year. I'm sympathetic to supply and demand but we've messed that up pretty bad already.

Mon, 08/05/2019 - 7:36am

It doesn’t have to be ‘either-or’ (job opps for skilled immigrants vs training unskilled citizens); we should be championing both approaches. There are US successes, too (Ackron, I think). Call your legislators!

Tue, 08/13/2019 - 7:57pm