What if Detroit were the Ellis Island of the 21st century? A landing spot, and proving ground, for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who want to move to the United States. What if the city served as a model for dozens of other American cities that have shrunk over the last fifty years? What if we could repopulate American cities, starting with Detroit, in one whizz-bang epic move?Here’s how it might work:
1.) Immigrants are granted a residential city or state owned property in Detroit. We have 100,000 of them, and no clue what to do with them. Why not engage in some quid pro quo? Millions of people want to move to the United States, and we need people to help us invest time and energy in rebuilding the city.
2.) Immigrants have five years to “prove up” the land. The old Homestead Acts granted government owned land to Americans on the condition they improved, or “proved up,” the land within five years. At the time, there was no good mechanism for verifying homesteaders’ claims that they had indeed made improvements to the land, and widespread fraud undermined the various Homestead Acts. But these days, it would be easy to survey, track, and verify the progress immigrants made on their property.
3.) Welcome to America! Here’s your Green Card. At the end of five years, immigrant property, standing (employment, background checks, etc.), are evaluated. If everything checks out, you get a Green Card. Welcome!
What would Detroit look like if we threw open the doors like this? Well, Gallup recently found that 138 million people worldwide would like to move to the United States — about three times as many people as the second highest rated emigration destination, the United Kingdom. From big countries and small, people want to move to the USA; millions from China, Nigeria, Brazil, and India, alongside high percentages of the population from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and the Dominican Republic.
There are all kinds of variations on a theme you could include in this idea — incentives for those who want to open a business, or relocate a business, in Detroit. Or including a quota of Americans in the offering (for the homestead, not the Green Card, of course).
The fact that people from around the world want to live here is, to my mind, the most valuable thing America has going for it. It’s the reason the country achieved so much in the 20th century, and probably our greatest hope for remaining an interesting and profitable country into the 21st.
40 major cities across the United States, from Chicago to Philadelphia, Pittsburg and Cleveland, have lost a collective 7.5 million people over the last 50 years. A model that works in Detroit could be applied beyond our borders, and bring diversity of experience, background, culture, and capacity to cities across the country.
As with everything good from the last century, though, it should start in Detroit.