Detroit wants its own high-tech visa

But Michigan governor's plan to help troubled city will be a hard sell in Washington

Detroit, a city in bankruptcy and dealing with a shrinking population, hopes to turn itself around with the help of 50,000 employment-based green cards.

The visas would be made available under the EB-2 visa category, a visa for professionals who hold advanced degrees or those deemed to possess "exceptional ability" in the sciences, arts or business, said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, who pitched the idea on Thursday.

In exchange for the visa, an immigrant would be required to live and work in Detroit. The required length of the residency has not been determined, according to a spokesman for the governor.

No other city or region in the U.S. has anything like what Snyder is proposing. So, convincing the White House, let alone Congress, that an immigration carve-out for Detroit is needed may be a very tough sell.

This is not a plan that Michigan can implement on its own. Raising the cap on employment-based visas enough to meet Detroit's goal would require approval by Congress. But at this point Snyder is only asking for a reallocation of existing visas, not an increase in the overall number of visas issued, and that just requires White House action. Nonetheless, there are still problems with the plan.

There is already a multiyear backlog of demand for employment-based green cards, particularly from India and China. U.S. law allows for 140,000 of those green cards each year, of which 40,000 are set aside for EB-2 visas. But any reallocation of those numbers to exclusively help Detroit is going to "adversely affect" others already in line for a visa and their sponsoring employers, said former U.S. Rep. Bruce Morrison, who, as a Democrat representing Connecticut, was the author of the 1990 immigration reform bill.

Morrison said the Michigan plan for Detroit needs work, but "the idea of municipally based employment visas is a good idea" and something that Morrison recommended for Baltimore in a report (download PDF) he prepared for The Abell Foundation in 2002. Immigrants bring in new perspectives, he said.

Whereas "a native population notices the decline of a place, the immigrant, the newcomer, says, 'I can build from here,'" said Morrison. "You do get a different perspective about rebuilding places when you bring in newcomers, so that was the virtue of it."

Snyder is asking the U.S. to set aside 5,000 of the EB-2 visas for Detroit in the first year, 10,000 in each of the next three years, and 15,000 in the fifth year.

"In order for Detroit to grow again, we need highly trained workers to move in, open businesses and raise their families," Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement.

Employment-based visas generally require a labor certification, which means that an employer must certify to the U.S. Department of Labor that it couldn't find a qualified U.S. worker for the job. But that isn't necessary in every instance.

There is a provision for a "national interest waiver" that allows someone to get an EB-2 visa without labor certification; Michigan's proposal includes a request for such a waiver.

A national interest wavier "means employers who wanted to hire these immigrants wouldn't have to check if there's a qualified local U.S. worker available, and wouldn't have to pay a prevailing wage," said Daniel Costa, an immigration policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. "I'm a little bit uncomfortable with that, given the near 18% unemployment rate in Detroit. If there's a labor shortage in a place like Detroit, then employers should have to prove it. But I'm also not convinced that there are enough unfilled high-tech jobs for this many immigrants to take -- with or without labor certification."

To get a national interest waiver, an applicant must show that "the national benefits you offer are so great that they outweigh the national interests inherent in the labor certification process," according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

While there is evidence that immigrants are "are slightly more entrepreneurial than the U.S.-born," said Costa, "I don't think there's evidence to say that they're all magical super-entrepreneurs that are going to instantly create enough jobs to revitalize Detroit, as the governor seems to suggest."

He said 3.5% of all immigrants in the labor force are small business owners, compared to 3.3% for U.S.-born workers.

Costa said Snyder would have more credibility on the issue if he were doing more to help workers in Detroit. In 2011, the state cut jobless benefits from 26 weeks to 20.

"I also think the federal government should be offering people in the U.S. some money and land in Detroit if they'll move there," said Costa, or "just offer it to people across the country who have advanced degrees."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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