A photo of empty storefronts in a small American town.
David Goldman/AP

Place-based immigrant visas could help revitalize America’s left-behind cities and regions, economic researchers say in a new report.

America is growing more divided, not just by economic class, but by geographic region. We’ve seen mounting geographic inequality—something I’ve dubbed “winner-take-all urbanism”—as the divide has widened between coastal superstar cities (like New York and Los Angeles) or leading tech hubs (such as San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Washington, D.C.) and the rest of the country.

A new report by economist Adam Ozimek of Moody’s Analytics and Kenan Fikri and John Lettieri of the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) takes a closer look at the extent of America’s geographic divide and the factors that are driving it. But instead of stopping there, it also suggests a strategy for addressing it. To bolster the economies of struggling cities and regions, the authors’ proposed solution is placed-based visas (or “heartland visas”), which would effectively channel immigrants to the left-behind places that opt into the program.

The report provides details on the forces behind America’s widening geographic rift. For one, population growth in the United States has fallen to 80-year lows. The U.S. now adds about 900,000 fewer people each year than it did not so long ago, in the early 2000s. Indeed, over the past decade, population growth has slowed to the most stagnant pace since the Great Depression. The graph below shows changes in the overall U.S. population and the prime working-age population from 1922 to 2018.

a graph of U.S. population and prime working age population from 1922 to 2018
(Economic Innovation Group)

Population growth is not spread evenly across the country: Certain places are growing more slowly than others, and some are actually losing population. From 2010 to 2017, more than 85 percent of U.S. counties grew more slowly than the nation as a whole. This is up substantially from 64 percent in the 1990s. As the map below shows, while cities and regions on the coasts have grown (the areas shaded blue on the map), many areas of the U.S.—especially those in the heartland—have seen population loss between 0 and 5 percent (in orange) or upwards of 5 percent (in red).

map of county population change from 2007 to 2017
(Economic Innovation Group)

Places with slow-growing or shrinking populations tend to have residents who are less educated than in fast-growing counties. As the report notes, on the county level, the share of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree in the counties that are losing the most population is half that in the counties that are growing fastest. Slow population growth or population loss hits hard at a place, leading to weaker economic development and job creation, hurting housing markets, and putting stress on public finances.

Historically, the U.S. has seen economic and demographic convergence as people moved to areas of greater opportunity. But as a growing body of research documents, such convergence has slowed in recent years; instead, the economic fortunes of the coasts and the heartland have been diverging.

In fact, America now has a dual pattern of migration. There are relatively high rates of mobility for more educated and skilled people, while less skilled, less highly educated citizens are increasingly stuck in place. (I recently called attention to this growing divide between the mobile and the stuck.)

As the EIG report notes, “while both low-skilled and high-skilled households used to move towards opportunity, today it is predominantly the high-skilled who leave economically struggling places while the low-skilled stay behind.” And it’s the places with the greatest population loss that also struggle with steepest declines in the “prime-age” working population, as the map below shows.

a map of prime working age population change by county from 2007 to 2017
(Economic Innovation Group)

President Trump wants to clamp down on immigration, claiming that the country is “full.” But immigration has been a powerful source of economic and demographic growth in the U.S., especially for affluent, highly innovative regions.

My own research has documented the close connection between openness to immigration and rates of technological innovation and economic development. Other research shows that high-skilled immigrants have fueled growth in tech hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area, and that anywhere from one-third to half of major high-tech startups have significant involvement from immigrants. As another map from the report shows, skilled immigrants are mainly concentrated in the same coastal superstar cities and tech hubs, amplifying their economic advantages.

a map of skilled foreign-born workers by county in 2017
(Economic Innovation Group)

The report’s authors argue that immigrants can revitalize and bring growth to lagging sections of the country. The new class of “heartland visas” they propose would spread high-skilled immigrants and the benefits they bring more broadly. As they describe it:

Such a program would constitute a flexible, additive, and voluntary pathway for skilled immigrants to come to the United States. Eligible communities would opt-in to hosting visa holders, who would provide a much-needed catalyst of human capital and entrepreneurial vitality into parts of the country that retain considerable economic potential.

Heartland visas are a mechanism for spurring growth in parts of the country that aren’t benefiting as much from existing visa programs like the H-1B. These visas would not be tied to a single employer, so their holders could work in startups and small businesses that might otherwise have trouble handling the costs and administrative burden associated with the H-1B program. They would be contingent on visa holders finding and maintaining a job or starting a business, and would provide a path to permanent residency.

The program would restrict where visa holders can live and work for a certain amount of time, but they would be able to move within the U.S. once they were granted permanent residency, an incentive for compliance.

Heartland visas are not a panacea for all the myriad problems of struggling places. Many of these places lack research universities or global connectivity or other factors that are required for growth. And many of them have failed to develop the strategy to harness their assets and address the challenges they face.

That said, creating incentives that would redirect high-skilled immigrants from established tech centers to less dynamic regions of the country could help spur growth in lagging places while taking some of the pressure off the already unaffordable housing markets of leading hubs. As the authors put it, being “a magnet for skilled and entrepreneurial people the world over is one of the greatest advantages a nation can possess. It is time to fully capitalize on this advantage in pursuit of a more inclusive geography of economic growth and opportunity.”

From Andrew Carnegie in steel to Andrew Grove in semiconductors, to name just two examples, immigrants have long driven innovation in America and bolstered its economic advantage. Instead of seeing immigrants as a threat, the U.S. government could see them as an engine of revitalization for places that are being left behind.

CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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