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Detroit wants its own high-tech visa

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 advanced degree professionals or those deemed with "exceptional ability" in the sciences, arts and 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. That length of residency has not been determined, according to a governor's spokesman.

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 employment-based visa cap enough to meet Detroit's goal would require approval by Congress. But Snyder, at this point, is only asking for White House action, which means reallocating, and not increasing, the existing employment-based green card cap. This creates a different problem.

There is already a multi-year backlog of 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 help Detroit, specifically, is going "to adversely affect" others already in line for a visa and their sponsoring employers, said former U.S. Rep. Bruce Morrison (D-Conn.), the author of the 1990 immigration reform overhaul.

Morrison said the Michigan plan for Detroit needs work, but "the idea of municipally based employment visas is a good idea" and something they recommended for Baltimore in a study ( download PDF) about 10 years ago. Immigrants bring in new perspectives, said Morrison.

"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 in the first year for Detroit, 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 is asking for this 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 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 of 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 by six 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 e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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