Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Immigration Numbers Game

The Mayor of the City of New York, Michael Bloomberg, has been a great champion for more immigration to the United States. Talent is the lifeblood of any metro's economy. His most recent call for meaningful reform isn't news. I agree with many of policy recommendations put forward. But there is a serious flaw in the theoretical framework used to frame the debate.

People develop, not places. Liberalizing the border would go a long way to achieving that end. Our obsession with territory clouds the picture of how migration promotes economic development. Pointing towards immigration as a solution for demographic challenges is a mistake.

Increasing the foreign born population shouldn't be a policy goal. Unfortunately, that's exactly what CEOs for Cities is touting. A look at City Vitals 2.0 for Pittsburgh:

One of our worst categories? International Talent or the percentage of metro population ages 25+ with a four year degree born outside the U.S. We're at #48 with a mere 6.8%. San Jose is #1 with a whopping 49.6% and Detroit, just for the sake of comparison, is ranked 19th with 14.8%.

Pittsburgh has a wealth of international talent. The population number looks pathetic. In general, Rust Belt cities do a poor job of attracting immigrants. Those who do come, tend to be well-educated. They have a huge positive impact on the regional economy. The "International Talent" metric doesn't capture that.

By way of a more constructive approach to boosting immigration, consider Monday's announcement of a partnership between Global Pittsburgh and the U.S. Commercial Service of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration:

"GlobalPittsburgh is very excited about this opportunity to partner with the U.S. Commercial Service to help attract international students to the Greater Pittsburgh Region," said Harry Edelman, Vice-Chair of the GlobalPittsburgh Board of Directors on behalf of Board Chair Giselle Leonardo and the entire GlobalPittsburgh Board of Directors. "I know from my own experience that there is great interest among students around the world to study in Pittsburgh, and we know that there are profound economic and cultural benefits associated with exporting the region's outstanding educational assets." ...

... The partnership is part of the National Exporters Initiative (NEI). In 2010, President Obama announced the NEI with the goal of doubling U.S. exports by the end of 2014. The partnership supports this goal by educating U.S. exporters about the benefits of exporting and expanding their exports to additional markets, and the public and private sector resources to assist them.

Emphasis added. Simply put, more immigrants equals more exports. The economic impact is huge, even if the students don't stick around after graduation. You'll have trouble making this case if you have been playing the brain drain game. Residents will wonder why the population is still shrinking. That will erode support for the program. Xenophobes will have the upper hand. Economic development is put on the back burner once again.

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