Will Snyder’s Proposed Immigration Reforms Boost Entrepreneurship?

During his State of the State address in January, Michigan governor Rick Snyder, who likes to refer to himself as “the most pro-immigration governor in America,” unveiled a bold plan to revitalize beleaguered Detroit—and to boost economic growth in the whole state. He called on the federal government to grant Michigan 50,000 visas over five years for skilled immigrants, especially those in fields like science and engineering who are most likely to work in, and create, high-tech jobs.

He also vowed to make Michigan the second state, after Vermont, to launch a state-sponsored, federally approved effort to attract immigrants willing to invest money in U.S. projects and businesses in exchange for a path to citizenship. “Let’s hold our arms open and say, ‘Come to Michigan, this is the place to be,’ ” he said during his January speech.

Those arms may not be able to open quite as wide as Snyder hopes, however. Targeting visas to a particular state or city would require Washington, DC, to act—which almost certainly isn’t going to happen. Still, Snyder may be able move ahead with the second part of his plan, as long as he improves the state’s current efforts to attract more immigrants.

The part of Snyder’s plan that runs afoul of federal law is his idea of snaring 50,000 immigrant work visas for Michigan over five years, using a visa category called EB-2. EB-2 visas are granted to immigrants with advanced degrees or those whose skills are expected to benefit the American economy or culture. They must already have a job offer. But as it stands now, only the federal government has the authority to grant these visas.

“Our current immigration system is not state-based,” explains Ann Chih Lin, an associate professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan. “I’m happy he’s thinking about it and I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but there’s no possible way to promise thousands of visas to Michigan.”

In order to do what Snyder proposes, the federal government would have to get Congress to change the U.S. Constitution to give states some control over visas, or President Obama would have to issue an executive order granting the visas to Michigan. That’s not likely, especially in today’s bitterly partisan Washington.

In January, when a reporter from “Here and Now” asked Snyder how he hoped to accomplish this, Snyder offered no details: “Well, I think that there’s a strong argument to say it’s in the national interest … it’s not asking the federal government for a bailout in any fashion, but hopefully administratively this could be done, and if not, legislatively,” he said.

But Michigan could move forward anyway on several fronts, including Snyder’s idea of a state-run, federally approved center to attract immigrant investors. “Snyder could be a national leader if he said states deserve to be partners in the immigration process,” says Lin, herself a daughter of immigrants. “Some states may decide that immigrants aren’t beneficial to the state economy, but some states might. We should be able to design our own immigration programs to add to federal programs.”

Some Midwestern rust-belt cities like St. Louis are already working to attract immigrants. That city’s Mosaic Project, launched last summer, aims to make St. Louis the fastest-growing U.S. metro area, in large part because of immigration, by 2020. The plan is to connect international college students with area job opportunities, and add a foreign-born focus to current training and small-business programs. Michigan could do something similar, and in fact, the state launched the Global Talent Retention Initiative of Michigan (GTRI) last fall.

In addition, just having a governor who sees immigrants as vital to helping jumpstart urban revitalization and job creation sets the state apart, says Steve Tobocman, a former Democratic state representative and the current director of Global Detroit, … Next Page »

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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