Help Wanted in Michigan: Immigrants Need Apply

2/23/11

Following a speech last week, six students approached Thomas Zurbuchen, associate dean of entrepreneurial programs at the University of Michigan, to ask him a few follow up questions

Of that six, four were foreign nationals, a ratio that is typical of entrepreneurship related classes, he says.

But Zurbuchen, an American citizen originally from Switzerland, these would be entrepreneurs often return to their home countries without starting a business here.

“We educate these immigrants and entrepreneurs and at the end of it we say ‘thank you very much’ and send them home,” he says. “That’s just not smart.”

Research universities and high tech startups rely heavily on foreign brain power. Michigan and the country at large need to find ways to continue to tap that talent, says Doug Neal, the managing director of the school’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

“In the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan, I think about half of our [graduate] enrollment is from foreign national students and if you look to Silicon Valley there’s a high percentage of people who start companies there that are foreign nationals as well,” Neal says. “If we have trends like that and we have the influx like that, it should be factored into the equation of how you address the brain drain.”

In his state of the state address last month, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said one of his priorities will be creating an environment that will keep immigrants with advanced degrees in Michigan.

“One-half of startups in Silicon Valley have a foreign national as one of the founders,” Snyder said in his speech last month. “Immigration made us a great state and country. We need to embrace the concept again as a way to speed our reinvention.”

However, the Snyder Administration has yet to develop any new, concrete proposals.

Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said state officials are currently in an “information gathering phase.” She added that officials think they’ll be able to take advantage of laws already in place to create opportunities for expedited citizenship or green cards.

“We don’t think that any additional legislation would be needed state wise,” she said.

Snyder faces an uphill climb. Anti-immigration sentiment remains high across the country. Last year, Congress rejected the Dream Act, a bill championed by President Obama that would eventually grant citizenship to undocumented students.

Despite pleas from Silicon Valley, Congress has refused to significantly raise the limit of H1-B work visas the United States grants each year to foreign workers with special skills. Last month, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service said it will no longer accept H-1B applications because the country will soon hit the 65,000 visa cap for fiscal year 2011.

Randal Charlton, executive director at Techtown in Detroit and a foreign-born entrepreneur, praised Snyder’s efforts.

But, “I think it’s a national issue and he can’t do it alone and he has to have the support of the federal government,” he says.

“Where we’ve got outstandingly talented individuals that we train at our universities we should encourage them to apply for citizenship so they can set up their businesses here and not go back to China and India and set them up there,” Charlton added.

Snyder spokeswoman Wurfel says more foreign-born entrepreneurs will spur the state’s much needed economic recovery. Foreign nationals in Michigan are three times as likely to start a new business compared to U.S.-born citizens, according to a Global Detroit Study.

“I think there’s some pretty strong evidence that shows that a lot of the startups have foreign nationals as founders and that can be real opportunity for the reinvention that the governor talks about a lot to help create Michigan as a place of opportunity,” Wurfel says.

Jillian Berman is an intern for Xconomy Detroit. Follow @

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  • JimB

    Once again the term immigrants is used.

    Legal immigrants are welcome.

  • JimB

    Once again the term immigrants is used.

    Legal immigrants are welcome.

    Illegal immigrants have NOTHING coming from the taxpayers of this country. Their only RIGHTS should be a 1 way bus ticket back to where they come from.

  • Mgg

    JimB – are you a Native American? If not, you are an immigrant or the descendant of one. But you’re missing the point. These hIghly educated (and motivated) graduates aren’t asking us for anything. They’re leaving with knowledge, skills and work ethic we could use. That’s why it benefits us to establish a pathway for their LEGAL residence in.the U.S.