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.
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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.