By Peter Fleischer
If it were only a case of 50,000 destitute children interned for trying to enter the United States, we would not still be reading about this ongoing sadness. Many right-minded, good people fear that where there are 50,000 today, there will be 500,000 or perhaps five million refugees before long. So what should one do? I say bring them here. They are kids. They are not a threat, economically or otherwise.
We have room here in the Lake Belt (formerly dubbed the Rust Belt), and soon we will need these brave and oh so familiar strangers, fleeing poverty, hatred and violence, wanting a better life. From Duluth, Minnesota through Milwaukee, Kankakee, Gary, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, all the way to Springfield, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut, our legacy cities have room. In recent decades, these places have shed at least the number of people we might soon see as new immigrants.
In many places, what once were attractive core cities now regrettably contain hundreds of thousands of empty lots, abandoned homes, under-utilized shopping centers, old schools and historic places of worship. Way too many of them are slated for demolition.
Many once-thriving downtowns are paved over for parking lots, and lined with shuttered stores. These are the hollowed out places where new immigrants from the Ukraine, Italy, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Ireland, Germany — everywhere, actually — once made things and made many people wealthy in the process.
These are places with water, sewer, road and bus systems built bigger than their shrunken populations can now afford. These are old established communities with rich histories that also contain fine medical centers, universities, museums, theatres and architecture. Urban planners say they have “fine bones.”
Population experts say they have inverted demographic pyramids — too many old people, too few young ones.
And it’s not just the cities: rural areas in upstate New York, for example, are inverted in this way as well. It’s projected that Upstate counties by 2025 will experience ratios of working people to retired people approaching 1 to 1. Real estate brokers, bankers, and municipal officials know why that won’t work — its Economics 101 — supply and demand!
When too many Baby Boomers (people age 55 and over) downsize and try to sell their homes, as they soon will, there are regularly too few buyers. This is largely due to the perfect storm of baby bust, youth flight, and changing housing preferences, which cause home prices to fall.
Nest eggs will shrink. Towns, villages, and cities will need to raise tax rates just to maintain services. This already vicious cycle will grow ever more vicious. And the market will have spoken, often with devastating consequences.
Averting this human and marketplace debacle that is coming to a community near you by 2025 or so is still possible. Simply put, new buyers are needed. Not quite yet, but soon, demographically speaking. Just about the time when the children now at the border will need homes of their own.
By then, workers will be needed too. These old places I’ve described will need snow plow operators, nurses, mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, bus drivers, computer programmers, farmers, janitors, small business owners, and artists too. They will need taxpayers. Old age, old infrastructure, and providing services in sprawled out places does not come cheap.
Between now and 2025, helping these children grow up to prosper in the safety and relative abundance of our nation will no doubt pose challenges for the already distressed communities and social service organizations that voluntarily open to them. There is certainly a cost of providing them shelter and learning and opportunity. But then again, so will interning them, gathering and deporting them, or just letting them self-depart in the desert. Congress, perhaps New York State too, should fund the resettlement community to handle this new challenge. Funds ought not to come from existing underfunded programs.
Clearly, one path forward is rooted in America’s best history. It embraces our openness, tolerance, and willingness to believe in tomorrow’s better and bigger America.
It supposes that today’s ragged, dusty, but striving immigrants will, with a little help, make something of themselves. The ones who have come before made us all richer.
But another other path is regrettably also part of our history.
We can close our eyes, our hearts and our shores, as we have sometimes before. We once closed the door: we interned the Japanese; told the Irish not to apply; enslaved Africans; pillaged and decimated the natives; mocked and stereotyped the I-talians; and even sent boatloads of refugees back to Hitler. Millions of undocumented humans were left to fester in the shadows.
National debate is now in a nuanced space between evil and good. Letting large numbers of immigrants in may well be grounded in our Judeo-Christian values and traditions, but it’s also basic, enlightened self-interest. That’s what forefather and patriot Benjamin Franklin would doubtless do.
Bring them here. Set them on a safe path that lets their brains, hopes, sweat and energy build homes, raise families, pay taxes, start businesses, tend farms — urban and rural — do the needed work and build equity.
Peter Fleischer has been the Executive Director of Empire State Future since 2008. From 2003-2007, Peter was the Senior Vice President at the Empire State Development Corporation’s Governors Island subsidiary. Prior to this, he was a Transportation and Environmental policy advisor to the New York City Mayor’s Office. He also served as Assistant Commissioner for Policy at the NYC Department of Transportation. Prior to his government service, Mr. Fleischer worked in strategic planning and private banking at Shearson Lehman American Express. A long time resident of Manhattan’s West Village, he now lives in downtown Albany. This post was first published on the ESF blog and is re-posted with permission by the author.