January 3, 2013

In his Dec. 27 op-ed column, “A nation settled by immigrants,” George F. Will gave an excellent account of how the 1862 Homestead Act gave hundreds of thousands of immigrants and poor Americans the chance to improve their own prospects and those of the country. Mr. Will could have used this history to make an analogy and recommendation for our own time.

With much of our urban corebeset by crime, unemployment, addiction, building vacancies and low homeownership — large swaths of Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore and other cities come to mind — why not open up condemned and abandoned properties in these places to urban homesteaders, with a 21st-century Homestead Act?

The program would be open to any comers — be they citizens or legal or illegal immigrants — and applicants would receive a property to live in, improve and win title to in, say, five years, as in the original Homestead Act. The program also could become part of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country.

A new Homestead Act might offer a partial solution to the decay of our cities and to the problem of illegal immigrants, and, of course, it could offer infusions of tax revenue to hard-pressed American municipalities.

Brent Tolbert-Smith, Catonsville