How Detroit's bankruptcy could affect immigration reform

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is proposing to recruit 50,000 immigrants to revitalize Detroit. It's a long shot, but it could tweak the dialogue around immigration reform.

Paul Sancya/AP
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder speaks at the IDEAL Group Thursday, where he announced a plan to ask the Obama administration to set aside thousands of work visas to entice talented immigrants to Detroit.

Gov. Rick Snyder (R) of Michigan put forward a new and controversial plan Thursday to award 50,000 visas over five years to immigrants willing to settle and work in Detroit as part of his efforts to revitalize the bankrupt city.

The move would require a federal action to increase in the employment-based visas for immigrants, as well as a drastic change in the way that such visas are awarded. As a result, immigration experts are skeptical that Governor Snyder's plan will become a reality. Yet some remain intrigued by the long-shot proposal's potential to change the national conversation around immigration reform.

Snyder is, after all, a Republican, which puts an unusual twist on the usual national debate about immigration. In recent years, much of the discussion – primarily among Republicans – has revolved around the societal costs of immigration and the strain that immigrants place on services and unemployment levels. But Snyder's request highlights that immigrants can also be job creators, says Rick Su, a law professor at the State University of New York Buffalo Law School.

Immigrants tend to be twice as likely to start a business as non-immigrants, the Partnership for a New American Economy found. In 2011, immigrants started more than a quarter of new businesses in the country. In 2007, Immigrants employed 4.7 million people and generated more than $776 billion in revenue, according to the Fiscal Policy Initiative.

This idea that immigration can actually be beneficial for business and the economy has potential to bridge the sharp political divide that has so far dominated the current conversation, says Ann Lin, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “This has a real chance to make both Republicans and Democrats think a little differently about the immigration issue.”

Snyder's request may seem contrary to the stricter immigration laws advocated by many in his party. But the idea could appeal to advocates wishing to strengthen state rights.

In order to gain any real momentum, Snyder will likely have look for allies outside Michigan and come up with a more comprehensive proposal, Professor Lin says.

“You want to think very carefully about what the preconditions of immigration are,” Lin says. “You don’t want to say, ‘Lets bring in smart people and hope that some of them will create businesses.’ ”

Canada has allowed individual states and provinces to admit immigrants into their region since the 1990s. While many Canadians have hailed the program as a success, there have been challenges. The Canadian government recently had to retool the requirements for business and entrepreneurial visas because they found that a lot of people claiming them were not actually starting businesses.

Another problem has been that some recipients of locally-issued visas have left the province that admitted them, says Susan Martin, a professor of international migration and director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University in Washington.

That same issue could be a major impediment for Snyder’s plan. Even if Washington were to grant additional visas, there is no legal mechanism in place to require recipients to remain in Detroit, Professor Su says. Snyder said it was unclear whether President Obama could act alone or whether Congress would have to be come involved, according to the Associated Press.

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