Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is asking the Obama administration for help in enlisting foreign nationals to save bankrupt Detroit.
The Republican governor said he's seeking 50,000 work visas solely for the city over five years. The type of visas involved are not allocated by region or state, and go to people who are legally here with advanced degrees or who show exceptional ability in certain fields.
Under his unique proposal, one-quarter of the country's 40,000 annual EB-2 visas would be designated for foreign nationals willing to live and work for five years in Detroit, home to the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history and whose neighborhoods have been hollowed out by the city's long population decline.
"This is very exciting. If you look at one of the key opportunities to accelerate the comeback of Detroit, it would really be this program," Snyder said in an interview Wednesday after announcing planned legislation to commit state aid to shore up Detroit pension funds and prevent the sale of valuable city-owned art in bankruptcy proceedings.
Snyder is scheduled to unveil the visa plan Thursday morning at the offices of the IDEAL Group, a family-owned manufacturing and construction company in Detroit whose founder is the grandson of Mexican immigrants. Mayor Mike Duggan, city council members and other community leaders are expected to attend.
The governor said the proposal would require no federal financial bailout.
"This involves working with immigration rules and visa limits," he said. "Here's a non-cash way to significantly accelerate the comeback of Detroit. Why wouldn't this be a great thing?"
Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said his administration plans to submit the "groundbreaking" request to the federal government this week if possible.
Snyder has routinely touted immigration and foreign workers as an economic driver, citing statistics that immigrant entrepreneurs start many small businesses and file patents at twice the rate of U.S.-born citizens. His office said immigrants created nearly one-third of the high-tech businesses in Michigan in the last decade, third in the nation.
The governor specifically is trying to find flexibility in a waiver that allows foreign workers with a master's degree or higher — or who demonstrate exceptional skills in science, business or art — to come to the U.S. if it is in the "national interest." The waiver is available if an applicant does not have a job or if a prospective employer cannot show that there are no qualified U.S. citizens to fill the position.
Snyder wants to broaden the definition of national interest to apply it to the geographic area of downtrodden Detroit, likening the concept to one already in place where foreign-born physicians can get a green card after working in an underserved area for five years.
Under the plan, Detroit would be allocated 5,000 visas in the first year, 10,000 each of the next three years and 15,000 in the fifth year.
Snyder is especially keen on keeping foreign students with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math in Michigan.
"A lot of those folks come get their degrees, we give them a world-class education and we tell them to get out," he said.
In his annual State of the State address last week, he announced a plan to join two other states in putting immigration services under a special office and a separate initiative to make Michigan the second state to run a regional EB-5 visa program to attract immigrant investors for development projects.
Business leaders and others applauded the effort despite some criticism from a leading Democrat that Snyder should focus on educating in-state residents rather than importing degree holders.
Steve Tobocman, director of the Global Detroit initiative, which aims to make the region more friendly to immigrants, said Snyder is someone who knows "how powerful immigration can be for our economy."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.
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