July 19, 2013— -- Detroit is desperate.
The city that was once home to a thriving auto manufacturing industry declared bankruptcy on Thursday, the largest municipality ever to do so.
One of the biggest economic problems is its declining population. As manufacturing has gone overseas, the city has bled people. Right now, it has just over 700,000 residents. That's down from it's peak of 1.86 million in 1950 and on par with how many people lived there in 1910, before the auto boom. The last decade or so has been particularly devastating.
However, some people are moving to Detroit: immigrants.
An area of Southwest Detroit called Mexicantown has been revitalized over the past several decades with new restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores that are generating revenue for the city.
Overall, however, Detroit's immigration population still lags behind the national average. Immigrants tend to follow jobs, and they tend to follow past waves of immigrants -- that's why areas like Chicago and New York have so many foreign-born residents.
Detroit doesn't have those magnets, at least not to the degree it needs.
Immigration wouldn't be a magical cure for all of Detroit's maladies, but it would help.
Mexicantown, for example, is still a low-income area, mirroring the city's greater economic standing. But with the influx of new immigrants, the quality of life in that area has improved, according to Steve Tobocman, the director of Global Detroit, an organization seeking to create economic development through immigration. He's also a former city representative for that area.
"I don't think we're offering that immigration is a panacea," he said. "But that being said, I do think it may be the single great urban revitalization strategy in modern-day America, and it's one that doesn't cost tax dollars."
In a sort of backward way, the city has some characteristics that could be appealing to newcomers. Because of the economic decline, real estate is cheap, making it easier to open a business there than in the country's biggest metro areas. That's drawing some immigrants who first arrive in places like New York and Chicago, according to Tobocman.
The local government in Detroit has also taken some steps to make it a more appealing place for immigrants, like instituting a policy discouraging police from asking residents about their immigration status.
And the state of Michigan just changed its policy to allow undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition, a major stride for those seeking higher education.
That said, there are some obstacles.
Detroit is a border city: It sits across from the Canadian city of Windsor. Because of that, Border Patrol is active in the region. And they don't always stick to guarding the frontier.
In March 2011, a public school building engineer -- a Detroit native of Mexican descent -- was pulled over by a Border Patrol agent while driving. The agent asked for his visa or birth certificate and then interrogated him on the side of the road for an hour, one of several similar stories reported in The Atlantic Cities.
During that same month, federal immigration agents staked out a school in Southwest Detroit, questioning and detaining two families.
The agency involved, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), cleared itself of any wrongdoing later that year.
"It is true: In Detroit, undocumented people will face some greater risk than other more internal cities in other parts of the country," Tobocman said.
Immigration reform could help quell some of those fears, if Congress is able to pass a bill that provides an avenue to legal status for the country's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
"I think immigration reform would help the city," Tobocman said. "International immigration seems to be by far the most important population growth or population stabilization strategy, and right now, the city of Detroit is not doing all that well."
Oh yeah, and there's also the Hunger Games-style suggestion New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made last year: Force new immigrants to live there.
"Assuming you could wave a magic wand and pull everybody together, you pass a law letting immigrants come in as long as they agree to go to Detroit and live there for five or ten years, start businesses, take jobs, whatever," Bloomberg said on NBC's "Meet the Press" in May 2012. "You would populate Detroit overnight. Half the world wants to come here."