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.