City-Specific Immigration Visas Would Be a Modern Day Indentured Servitude


An idea that’s been kicked around by many is to help turn around struggling cities like Detroit by offering geographically limited immigrations visas. That is, to allow foreigners get their green card if they agree to live in a particular city for a certain number of years.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has now officially endorsed the concept, calling for Detroit to be awarded 50,000 city-specific immigration visas for skilled workers over five years. As the NYT put it:

Under the plan, which is expected to be formally submitted to federal authorities soon, immigrants would be required to live and work in Detroit, a city that has fallen to 700,000 residents from 1.8 million in the 1950s.

“Isn’t that how we made our country great, through immigrants?” said Mr. Snyder, a Republican, who last year authorized the state’s largest city to seek bankruptcy protection and recently announced plans to open a state office focused on new Americans.

Later, he added, “Think about the power and the size of this program, what it could do to bring back Detroit, even faster and better.”

The appeal of the idea is obvious. I’ve probably said positive things about it myself in the past. But examine it more closely and it’s clear this is an idea that’s fatally flawed. By requiring immigrants to live and work in the city of Detroit for a period of time, this program would effectively bring back indentured servitude, only instead of having to work for the people who paid for their trip to America, these immigrants would have to work for Detroit.

I’ve got to believe that the courts would look skeptically at such a scheme that so radically restricts geographic mobility and opportunity. What’s more, I think it’s plain wrong to invite people into our country with the idea that they are de facto restricted to one municipality.

L. Brooks Patterson, county executive of wealthy Oakland County in suburban Detroit, took huge heat again this week when he was quoted in the New Yorker saying “I made a prediction a long time ago, and it’s come to pass. I said, ‘What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and the corn.’” Yet isn’t this idea of city specific visas almost literally treating Detroit like a reservation, only for immigrants instead of Indians?

Some have likened this to programs to entice doctors to rural areas by paying for medical school. I’m not sure how all of those are structured, but they may have questionable elements as well. But more importantly, my understanding is that they are purely financial, where medical school loans are paid off in return for a certain number of years of service. If a doctor elects to leave the program, they are in no worse shape than someone who didn’t sign up would be. They are still licensed to practice medicine and have to repay their loans just like every other doctor.

I don’t think Gov. Snyder is motivated by any ill will in this. I think he’s genuinely looking for creative solutions to the formidable problems Detroit faces. He’s taken huge heat for finally facing up to the legacy of problems there, and hasn’t shied way from making tough calls. He’s even willing to call for some bailout money, which many in his own party don’t like. But this idea is a bad one. He should withdraw it, and the federal government should by no means open to the door to these types of arrangements.

Immigrants remain a great way to pursue a civic turnaround, however. Detroit just needs to lure them on the open market the same way Dayton, Ohio and others are trying to do.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.

Photo by telwink

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We already have this program...

We already have this program of restricted residence in place for refugees arriving through the refugee resettlement program.

Also, this is commonly used abroad. Australia has location restrictive immigration for skilled migrants. Of course, it's pretty much unenforceable and some people in Australia do move once they realize that no one's checking up on them.

Most people who come to the US with work visas are limited in where they can live because their visa is dependent on their employment with a specific company.

And how many would stay in Detroit anyway?

Given the huge number of people who go to the trouble of crossing the borders illegally to work here, and the indulgence shown them when they get here, why would these immigrants stay in Detroit once they were there? What force could their formal commitment to Detroit have once they were out of Michigan? I can see a lot of Indian techies headed to Silicon Valley by way of Detroit, and very little will to restrain them in pursuit of their "Dream".

Anchored Visas

Your H-1B visas can be almost as anchoring, as you're generally tied to your sponsoring employer. At least there, you have the choice of living in the suburbs but are stuck with your employer unless you get a second one to jump through the red-tape hoops.

Also, if there is a large dose of foreigners in Detroit, there will be less interest from the rest of the state to help the city out other than tossing the occasional Care package over 8-Mile as Patterson joked about.