Rural NC is far from “full,” Mr. President

The shell of a building in downtown Lumberton, one of many struggling rural N.C. towns.
The shell of a building in downtown Lumberton, one of many struggling rural N.C. towns. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Anyone who lives in or has traveled through rural North Carolina would have to be puzzled by President Trump’s claim that the U.S. can accept no more immigrants because “our country is full.”

Far from full, rural North Carolina — like much of rural, small town and Rust Belt America — is more like a motel on a bypassed highway with a “vacancy” sign glowing in the night. North Carolina is growing, yes, but the growth is largely confined to its urban areas and their suburbs. Of the state’s 100 counties, 34 have fewer residents today than they did in 2010, according to UNC‘s Carolina Population Center.

The problem in these rural areas is an aging population, low fertility rates and weak economies that cause young people to leave for better opportunities. The solution may be admitting more immigrants with a focus on reviving fading counties and towns.

That’s the intriguing concept behind an immigration proposal from John Lettieri, president of the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), a politically diverse organization that seeks to help entrepreneurs and investors address America’s economic challenges. He is proposing that the U.S. create a program of “heartland visas” that would channel immigrants into declining rural areas that would welcome new arrivals.

A recent EIG report advocating the idea says, “A new place-based Heartland Visa program could become a powerful economic development tool for communities facing the consequences of current demographic trends, but not content to simply manage decline.”

While Lettieri’s proposal focuses on bringing in skilled immigrants, the idea should be applied to immigrants in general. America needs more workers, skilled and unskilled. They’re not going to come from native-born Americans. In the past decade, the U.S. population grew at its slowest rate since the 1920s and the population is aging rapidly. Ten thousand baby boomers turn 65 every day.

That double trend is having its biggest impact on areas where the working-age population is already scarce. Adding young immigrant families would increase the supply of workers, boost demand for local products and services, bolster the local housing market and support local schools. On their end, low-skilled immigrants would find better pay, safe conditions and affordable housing.

If nothing is done to reverse the decline in population, the depopulation will intensify as local economies and tax bases shrink. North Carolina could become a state of vibrant urban areas and rural ghost towns.

The obstacle to opening the door to immigrants, even with a restriction on where they settle, is the nativism Trump and others so eagerly stir. Even before Trump’s election, some were pushing for stepped up deportations and conflating refugees with terrorists. In 2015, Gov. Pat McCrory joined a call by Republican governors after the Paris terror attacks to keep Syrian refugees out of their states because one of the attackers had a fake Syrian passport.

“My primary duty as governor is to keep the citizens of North Carolina safe,” McCrory said.

But irrational fears about Middle Eastern refugees as terrorists or Central American immigrants as criminals or burdens on services are not keeping the U.S. or North Carolina safe. They are blocking a way to restore economically distressed areas. How might those Syrian refugees, many of them skilled, some of them professionals, have served struggling towns and counties in rural North Carolina?

Those who could help such places are on our nation’s doorstep. We ought to let them in.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com