Thursday, January 30th, 2014

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.

Topics: Globalization, Public Policy, Talent Attraction
Cities: Detroit

20 Responses to “City-Specific Immigration Visas Would Be a Modern Day Indentured Servitude”

  1. Nicholas Hufford says:

    I read an article about this that actually followed the idea to its roots in Canada. There the system is centered around provincial specific visas where certain occupations are selected as needs, and international immigrants are paired with these provincial needs. They have other factors that are involved to help make the transition as smooth as possible like having a friend or family member already in the region, but most of it revolves around having a job for at least one of the adults in a family. Also, and perhaps most importantly, in the Canadian system there is no time limit, at any point they can leave, but the earlier mentioned factors come into play and keep people living there. If it can work in the northern cities of Canada, potentially it could work with Detroit/other Michigan cities

  2. Likening this to indentured servitude is a bit much. I see what you’re saying, but you could make the same argument about much of our immigration system then. It’s often tied to some sort of requirement. Most often this is attending a specific school or working for a specific company.

    Obviously you can change schools or employers, but this is at your risk. If you are unable to find other school or employer to sponsor your visa, then you would lose your legal status. This would be the same for this program in Detroit, or any city, from what I would guess. In this case someone could leave Detroit and go elsewhere, but they’d have to find another way to maintain their immigration status. Upon leaving, it would then free up an additional slot in Detroit for someone else.

  3. Randy, I think you’re onto something. Much of our immigration system is screwed up.

    I think there’s a legitimate place for purpose specific visas. If someone comes here to study, be a tourist, or on an employer-specific assignment (L-1), I’ve got no problem with it. I have worked in other countries but always on the proviso that I have no right to stay there and it is only for the duration of the assignment.

    Other forms of non-permanent status visas have seen lots of reported abuse, particularly H1-B’s. This is exactly why employers love them so much and are lobbying hard for more of them. They give the employer far more leverage than with citizens or green card holders.

    We ought to be liberalizing immigration, not creating new narrow specific categories of this stuff.

  4. Tone says:

    “We ought to be liberalizing immigration, not creating new narrow specific categories of this stuff.”

    I agree, but there are way too many narrow minded nativists in this country.

  5. myb6 says:

    Aaron, clearly a freely-mobile visa is superior to a restricted-mobility visa. But I think the proper comparison here is a restricted-mobility visa instead of no visa at all: it’ll be easier to get voters on board with increased legal immigration if they know the increase will go only to places that really want it.

    Another potential flaw to consider is that the policy could draw a lower-skill migration than intended. But there’s no reason not to start out small and respond appropriately to the results.

  6. Chris Barnett says:

    There is a very specific angle to consider here. Detroit metro has already drawn a substantial immigration from Southwest Asia/Middle East countries (Syria, Iraq, etc.). We might expect a Detroit-specific program to draw from those very countries.

    There are innumerable complications both ways in appearing to sponsor a program to allow people from that region more ease at immigration. It would help war refugees, as the US has done throughout its history. But it might also ease the path for some folks whose motivation is not genuine or honorable.

  7. Brent says:

    I’m not sure it’s indentured servitude, as I’m sure they would be allowed to leave at any time, but it is a great way to have a poorly socialized and assimilated class along the lines of the Turks in Germany.

  8. George says:

    If the potential immigrant job candidate doesn’t like the terms they don’t have to come. Or better yet, Michigan can set up a program to entice Americans in high unemployment areas to move to cities where there are jobs waiting for them. I think the unemployment rate for Hispanics in their 20’s in Providence Rhode Island is 25%. I’m not certain what it is for blacks but I think its similar. Why don’t states set up programs to entice the unemployed to move to where the jobs are. No companies are going to bring jobs to RI until we have systematic change here. Those disenfranchised young people could make the move to Detroit the way African American’s did 100 years ago. I support immigration reform, but lets try to employ the people that are here first. Not a nativist (is that a word) but I think immigration reform is more of a political issue than a real issue when we still have pockets of severe of unemployed disenfranchised youth.

  9. Matthew Hall says:

    Quebec virtually runs its own immigration system and places like Winnipeg and Nova Scotia officially sponsor immigrants who make a solemn promise to remain in the places that sponsor them. I’m strongly opposed to the idea for all the reasons Aaron mentions, but there is a real world example.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    The reason Detroit depopulated is that it has no jobs. The headline unemployment rate in Detroit is 17.7%. At its peak in 2009, it was 27.8%. There’s a reason people are leaving the city.

    And this is what makes a Detroit-specific immigration visa so pernicious. Immigrants go where the jobs are. The Arab immigrants in the Detroit area do not live in the city but in suburbs with good access to jobs; the metro area as a whole was fairly rich when they moved, and still has work for professionals, but it’s mostly not in the city. With some exceptions for regions right next to borders, immigrants always move to richer regions, although often they settle in their cheaper, poorer neighborhoods. In Israel 60% of the refugees live in Tel Aviv, in Italy nearly all the immigrants are in the north, and in Canada immigrants cluster in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Montreal.

    The other issue is that Americans tend to overestimate how restrictive the other visas are. At least for academics, there’s no obstacle in changing employers on an H-1B visa. Student visas are also very flexible with transfers, or with getting an additional degree from another university. And all of those visa classes start from the assumption that you can live in the US if you have a job offer or an offer of admission, which is vastly different from restricting the immigrant to an area that has no jobs.

  11. George says:

    Ahhh, skilled workers. Sorry I missed that.

  12. Zathras says:

    Homesteading abandoned housing could have most of the same benefits without the coercive nature of city-specific visas. Nothing ties someone more to a place than home-ownership, so they become much more likely to stay.

  13. AIM says:

    Alon’s comments are on point with the specifics of the Governor’s proposal. His outline is “bring in immigrants – they create jobs for others!” But how is that going to happen when there’s a scarcity of jobs in the city? Snyder stated:

    “We have demand for engineers, IT professionals, life sciences, health care people. Come move to Detroit as part of this 50,000 visa program, set up shop and help generate … more jobs for the people of Detroit.”

    Are there really that many jobs in Detroit for those skills? And those are all high-demand positions which would likely be filled by non-immigrants, many who would choose to live or stay in the suburbs.

  14. ben says:

    I’d leave the Uk and go tomorrow if they let me. So what if you have to stay in Detroit, being part of the renewal of a once great city is a privilege anyway..For those who dream of becoming American this is amazing..

  15. Ryan says:

    One minor quibble I’d like to make is to your comparison to doctors working in rural areas in exchange for student loan forgiveness. I am about to graduate with a doctoral degree in psychology and approximately $150,000 in student loans. It may be different for medical students, but for our field, if you are participating in one of these programs and you leave, or even happen to lose your job through no fault of your own, not only do you have to pay back the loans that have been paid for you, you are hit with a pretty stiff financial penalty. I strongly considered applying for one of these programs, but the risk is just too great. There is a lot of fine print to those loan forgiveness programs; you could potentially end up in a much worse situation than you started out in.

  16. Alon Levy says:

    Detroit historically had a high home ownership rate, and still has a higher home ownership rate than big cities like Chicago, LA, New York, Boston, and SF. When the house you own is worth $20,000, it doesn’t tie you down unless you’re desperate, and if you’re desperate then you shouldn’t be tied down.

    As for Snyder’s response, he needs to talk to more immigrants. Immigrants do not create jobs ex nihilo. Immigrants move to regions with jobs, but to the cheaper parts of those regions; they then often regenerate neighborhoods. Most of Detroit qualifies as a cheap, poor neighborhood, but it doesn’t work the same way as in New York or Los Angeles, because,

    a) The Detroit region is also in rapid decline today,

    b) There are Detroit suburbs close to good jobs that are also cheap enough for immigrants,

    c) The professional immigrants Snyder is targeting don’t need to live in very cheap areas, so they have the option of rejecting a city as dangerous as Detroit, and

    d) The access to jobs from Detroit proper is awful, which is why the city emptied in the first place.

    Going back to Tel Aviv because I know its economic geography better, the refugees all cluster in a particular area of South Tel Aviv. The central square for them is Levinski, which you can find on Google. This is a run-down area that’s walking distance to parts of Central Tel Aviv like Rothschild and to Central Bus Station and only a few km by bus from CBD job centers like Azrieli. It is very far from the only cheap area in Greater Tel Aviv. For example, Petah Tikva, at the eastern end of the built-up area, is working-class and Tel Avivis look down on it with the same language New Yorkers look down on Newark and other poor parts of Jersey. Petah Tikva is certainly within commute range – there’s a busy bus to Tel Aviv that hits major job centers. It’s just far, and people do this commute if they’re priced out of Tel Aviv. The refugees are extremely poor, but they’re willing to live in overcrowded conditions and in neighborhoods with higher crime rates if they’re close by.

    Detroit is not like that. Detroit doesn’t even have a slow bus to the main job centers as Petah Tikva does; in Detroit everyone has to drive, which means that low-income immigrants are not going to have access to work. The Detroit region is not New York or Los Angeles, where high prices everywhere else have pushed immigrants into suburbs. The high-skilled immigrants have enough income to live far away, and the low-skilled immigrants would also prefer to live in a suburb closer to the current factories.

    And this is why I used the term ghetto on Twitter to describe Snyder’s plan. Immigrants do not go to Detroit. The Arab immigrants went to the suburbs. Detroit itself is 5% foreign-born (link), even less than Michigan’s total, and far less than the national average. Compare this with Providence, which is 30% foreign-born, more than Boston. Rhode Island has plenty of unemployment, but it’s richer than Michigan, and Providence provides enough of a combination of cheapness and access to work that Portuguese and Mexican immigrants came in. Detroit is in a much worse place, and confining immigrants there is putting them in a more spread-out version of the Early Modern ghettos.

  17. Alon, I think the high ownership ratio is related to something Pete Saunders hit on: the massive quantity of workers cottages on slabs in Detroit.

    Immigrants have proven able to do business in Detroit. Middle Easterners have a long history of trading culture in a highly difficult environment. It’s no surprise to me to see the large number of Chaldean grocery store owners, for example. The ability to run a successful business in a dysfunctional environment is a “skill” Snyder won’t value. However, Detroit seems to have no shortage of that type of immigrant today and I’m not aware of 10,000 more similar folks clamoring to open businesses in Detroit.

  18. George V. says:

    I think Snyder’s hope is that easy visas for skilled, foreign tech workers eould lure major tech companies into Detroit. Companies like Facebook, Apple, and etc. are absolutely in love with work visas. When Obama met with a contingent of Silicon Valley’s top dogs, all they mostly did was beg him to issue more visas.

    Dan Gilbert, owner of Quicken Loans, has already put in some tremendous work into adding the proper infrastructure downtown for tech jobs. Yes, Detroit has high taxes, but space is so cheap that it more than makes up for the taxes, and the city government has shown that it’s willing to work out tax breaks for big players.

  19. Pete from Baltimore says:

    I would agree with Alon Levy’s comment #10. I think that Snyder is confusing cause and effect.

    And its not just about jobs. Detroit has a very high crime rate.And the neighborhoods where the crime rate is at its highest, are the ones that have been abandoned by residents.

    Its like Baltimore. We have some immigrants.But they have not moved into the desolate neighborhoods. Instead, they have moved into blue collar neighborhoods that are near wealthy neighborhoods. So that they can have cheap rent, but also be near jobs.

    This happened in Langly Park MD. Just outside Washington DC. Its in PG County, which has cheap rent.But is right on the border of Montgomery County.Which has lots of high paying jobs

    The idea that immigrants will move into desolate and dangerous neighborhoods is a myth. They come to America because they want a better future for their children

    So in the end, the only way to attract immigrant to a city, is the same way that you attract anyone to a city. A supply of jobs.Fairly safe neighborhoods.And safe and decent schools.

    To be honest, im not “politically correct ” . But i find the belief that its somehow ok to bring immigrants into dangerous neighborhoods, instead of actually fixing the neighborhoods, and improving the schools, to be racist

    Lets face it, there are houses in Detroit going for $10. And yet, there isnt a wave of immigrants wanting to take advantage of those prices. Because they dont want to live in a neighborhood where they might get shot. So if unskilled nad lower income immigrants wont live in neighborhoods like that, why would “skilled” immigrants?

    I am also curious as to how Snyder would define “Skilled”. The idea seems to be the type that sounds good on paper. But is one that would be impossible to implement

  20. May says:

    These types of visas already exist for say bringing doctors to rural America.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures