Thursday, December 13, 2007

Any Kind of Immigrants

I asked for other bloggers to consider Richard Herman's policy innovation linking shrinking cities to an increase in the number of H-1B visas granted. Outside Erie asks at least one very important question, but I will tackle that one towards the end of this post. First, I want to respond to Richard Florida's skepticism about the proposed initiative:

I'll leave it to my economist colleagues to pick apart the inefficiencies of this kind of geographic targetting. These places already have lots of high-skill immigrants - take a walk around Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan, Michigan State, UB, or Case Western any day of the week. There's a reason they leave after they graduate.

Furthermore, I get very nervous when the discussion turns to certain types of immigrants. Some years ago my friend, Pittsburgh native, Don Carter convened a series of workshops and panels with immigrants on immigration. One of the main conclusions was that high-skill immigrants were not attracted to places with high-skill immigrants but rather to places with lots of immigrants. Sure those places were open and tolerant, but they also offered a range of services (groceries, restaurants, shops, etc.) that the higher-skill immigrants desired.

I understand the concern about targeting a certain type of immigrant, but I don't think Dr. Florida gives Mr. Herman's idea a fair shake. 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? As for the quip about these immigrants leaving once they graduate, shrinking cities aren't the only places experiencing this kind of out-migration. 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.

Will the demand for H-1B visas go down if geographic constraints are applied? I doubt that would happen, but I am interested in studies that suggest otherwise. Regardless, aggressively seeking more H-1B immigration doesn't close the door to other kinds of immigrants. If there is a proven way to attract them, then I'm all ears.

On the other hand, Peter Panepento asks a vexing question:

Would partnering with other cities (generally Erie’s competitors in the business- and people-attraction game) help Erie long term?

If the United States designated 25,000 more (above and beyond the current cap) H-1B visas for Rust Belt shrinking cities, then we will have a problem of figuring out how those openings might be distributed within the region. An open competition would surely leave some cities out in the cold. The primary goal of the program is to attract businesses starved for talent (not to increase international migration to certain cities). In cities not relatively rich in the type of human capital in demand, there will need to be a high number of openings. In cities such as Pittsburgh, the number of extra H-1B visas needed to attract new business might be lower than that of Erie or Youngstown.

Each shrinking city in the Rust Belt would need to submit terms of collaboration. The value of a greater number of participants is a more powerful lobbying effort. Since immigration is such a hot button topic, the more buy in the better. Perhaps not in the near future (especially if we experience the predicted economic downturn), but we will eventually see some sort of national immigration reform for economic purposes (as opposed to family reunification purposes). The Rust Belt should position itself to drive that debate.

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