American cities like Baltimore, Dayton, and Detroit are eager to attract immigrants in an effort to stem population losses. And there’s little doubt that many foreign families would happily move in if given the chance. The potential gains from trade here are pretty huge—one has to wonder if adjustments to American immigration policy could help to realize them.
One idea we’ve discussed at the Urbanization Project is the notion of a city-based visa. Not all cities welcome additional immigration, but perhaps those that do could sponsor visa holders. The visa could be temporary and renewable, with a path to permanent residency and eventually citizenship. Visa holders would be free to bring their immediate family members with them.
Presumably, the sponsoring cities would have to adequately address some of the primary concerns of immigration opponents, ensuring that visa holders do not receive means-tested transfers from the federal government, commit crimes, or disappear into non-participating cities. A participating city could choose to sponsor undocumented immigrants, provided the city is willing to take on the responsibility of making them legal residents and eventually citizens.
In addition to clearing visa holders and determining the number of visas to distribute each year, the Department of Homeland Security could accept or reject the applications of cities wishing to participate in the program. This would help to ensure that only American cities meeting acceptable standards of governance would be free to sponsor immigrants and their families.
A policy that allows a greater number of law-abiding immigrants into the American cities that want them most could do more for global welfare than other policies related to trade and aid. An effective policy of this sort would be a win-win—a way for struggling American cities to stabilize their populations and a way for immigrant families to live, work, and study in the United States.