When President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862, enterprising individuals and families with a sense of adventure set off to settle the American West.
The law promised that if you worked to improve a piece of unclaimed land, if you built a house or started a farm, then that land could be yours. Though it had sad consequences for the Plains and Intermountain Indian tribes, the legislation codified the American dream. It told people, not just those who were already citizens, but new immigrants as well, if you come here and you make something out of nothing, you can have a stake in this country. And the people listened. Between 1862 and 1986, when the last claim was approved in Alaska, 1.6 million homesteads were granted.
We no longer have large swaths of vacant government-owned land, but that does not mean that the same spirit of determination cannot serve us today. Farm towns and Rust Belt cities across the nation’s midsection are suffering from decline and stagnation. From 1950 through 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that St. Louis lost 59% of its population, Pittsburgh lost 54%, Detroit shrunk 51% and Minneapolis downsized 24%.
These places need an influx of creativity and energy — and population. We need not look very far to find people who want to bring us their labor and ingenuity. They are waiting at the border.
Immigrants have the ambition to make a fresh start for themselves and, in doing so, to help troubled cities and towns make a fresh start as well. A report from Research Perspectives on Migration noted that immigrants tend to have the same personal characteristics as entrepreneurs. Both are risk-takers and self-starters.
Perhaps that is why, according to the Immigrant Learning Center, every census between 1880 and 1990 has shown that immigrants are more likely to be self-employed than natives are. Jonathan Bowles, the director of the Center for an Urban Future, a private, nonprofit research group, told The New York Times in 2007, “Immigrants have been the entrepreneurial spark plugs of cities from New York to Los Angeles.” According to the same article, in 2005, at least 22 of the 100 fastest-growing companies in Los Angeles were created by first-generation immigrants.
We should invite immigrants to our towns and cities, particularly those that are struggling with brain drain and depopulation. We should use green cards, which allow permanent U.S. residency and a path toward citizenship, to reward those who start businesses or get jobs. This will give the newcomers a stake in this country, just as the homesteaders of the 1800s were given a stake in return for their courage and hard work.
Canada actively recruits entrepreneurially minded immigrants as a way of stimulating its economy. The country’s Entrepreneur Program allows those who establish a business that creates at least one new job to obtain a permanent resident visa, provided they meet certain other requirements. When labor advocates complain about immigrants taking jobs away from citizens, they forget that immigrant-founded businesses can be an important source of new jobs.
During the past election cycle, Democrats were largely quiet on the issue of immigration, while Republicans tore themselves apart over it. President Obama has said, however, that next year he plans to end his party’s silence on the question and begin working towards comprehensive immigration reform.
When he does, I hope he keeps the Homestead Act in mind.