Congress might not be in a hurry to take up immigration reform, but that isn’t stopping Gov. Rick Snyder from pushing ahead with plans to attract international talent and investors to Michigan.
Snyder announced plans during his State of the State address to do three things on Michigan’s immigration front this year: create the Michigan Office for New Americans; become a designated EB-5 Regional Center; and request the federal government set aside 50,000 EB-2 visas for Detroit over the course of the next five years.
Within weeks of his address, Snyder already has created the Michigan Office for New Americans and named West Michigan business owner and resident Bing Goei its executive director. Goei will facilitate the ongoing work being done by several state departments and community groups to help streamline immigration efforts and maximize resources for the greatest impact.
“It is about job creation and economic development,” Goei said of Snyder’s plan for the Michigan Office for New Americans. “The governor is saying use this office to bring the people together so that they can begin to talk to each other and collaborate with one another.”
Next on Snyder’s list is to have Michigan designated an EB-5 Regional Center. The state must apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is an agency under the Department for Homeland Security, for that designation.
Congress created the EB-5 program in 1990 to stimulate the U.S. economy through job creation and capital investment by foreign investors.
As of Feb. 1, USCIS had approved 440 Regional Centers throughout the country; at least nine are located in Michigan.
As an EB-5 Regional Center, Michigan would be able to attract foreign investors who are willing and able to invest at least $500,000 in a new commercial enterprise in the state and create 10 full-time jobs over two years. In exchange for meeting the requirements, the investor would receive an EB-5 visa.
Each year USCIS sets aside an allotment of 10,000 EB-5 visas, many of which go unused. In 2012, only 7,818 EB-5 visas were issued.
“There is a unique opportunity in Michigan because we really haven’t had too many private enterprises seek to become an EB-5 Regional Center,” said Susan Im, an immigration attorney with ImLaw.
Currently, Vermont is the only statewide EB-5 Regional Centerowned, managed and administered by a state.
“The Vermont Regional Center, through partnership with private businesses and developers, has attracted over $300 million in investments since 2007,” said Brent Raymond, executive director of international trade and foreign investment for the Vermont center. “Projects include ski resorts such as Jay Peak and Sugarbush, and Country Home Products, a manufacturing company.
“It's been a very successful economic development and job creation tool for Vermonters. Over 6,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs have been created.”
He added that Vermont was tied for having the fifth lowest unemployment rate in the country.
“EB-5 is one of many economic development tools that have helped,” he said. “Foreign capital injection into a city, region or state creates needed capital investment diversification and is especially important when traditional capital financing resources are tight.”
Raymond said he expects Michigan and particularly Detroit also would benefit from becoming an EB-5 Regional Center.
“To be successful, Michigan will need to partner with proven business leaders,” Raymond said. “The EB-5 RC must be able to operate with autonomy and not be burdened with political pressures. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, his staff and Vermont’s legislators have been very good about not applying political pressures to approve potential projects we evaluate.
“Decisions should be made based upon review of the business plan, the background, success and business ethics of the principles, and ability of the proposed project to maintain records and file required documents required by USCIS. After approval, projects need to be constantly monitored.”
In addition to the EB-5 program, which could be used for projects across Michigan, Snyder is taking the unique approach of requesting 50,000 EB-2 visas be set aside specifically for Detroit in hopes that immigration can help revitalize the city.
EB-2 visas are reserved for international individuals meeting specific professional requirements, including holding an advanced degree or with a proven exceptional ability. The benefit of an EB-2 visa is they are a bit less sought after because fewer people meet the necessary requirements.
Im said there are 40,000 green cards available per fiscal year for people who qualify for EB-2 visas.
“The governor is proposing a really unique proposal with the EB-2s to try and rejuvenate Detroit — very unique and creative out-of-the-box ideas. We need that,” Im said.
Never before has the federal government set aside EB-2 visas for a specific city or state.
“The government has set aside visas for particular occupations and skill levels, and that’s been the traditional method of allocating visas,” said Nathaniel Wolf, attorney with Mika Meyers Beckett & Jones.
“I haven’t seen where visas have been allocated to a particular geographic region. So because these visas are so sought after and it’s so competitive to get them, I don’t see it as terribly likely that a city would get … allocated special circumstances.
“However, Detroit does have special circumstances. It is the largest city to file a bankruptcy, so there may be some interest level in treating them differently because it is a different circumstance.”
To get the visas, Detroit will need either Congressional support or an executive order from President Obama. Snyder has already headed to Washington, D.C., to try and drum up that support.
“The nation has spent a significant amount of money to maintain an auto industry in Detroit. It has worked, and now we are seeing a need for some help in the city,” Goei said. “The federal government and President Obama have said, ‘We will help you with whatever we can, but it won’t be with money.’ And we are saying to add extra visas designated for Detroit won’t cost anything. … Here is a non-cash investment that you can do, and we as a state will provide all the necessary support system to make it work if you give that opportunity to us.”
Snyder’s proposals seem to be receiving a positive response from Michigan’s business community.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with the direction the governor is taking with regard to immigration,” Im said. “We have a governor who has been very vocal in saying that he is a very pro-immigration governor. He is doing what he can to advocate for better immigration policy on a state level.”
With Congress’ recent announcement that it does not plan to take up immigration reform in the year ahead, Snyder’s plan, which relies on existing immigration laws, is even more important.
“I think the most important part of what Gov. Snyder is doing is he is putting this on the forefront of what he wants to do, and other states should follow suit with what he is doing, putting pressure on the federal government to actually make some real changes,” Wolf said.