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Can Our Governors Rescue Immigration Reform?

Jonathan Ortmans

 

It has now been more than a year since the United States Congress restarted efforts to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Despite expected resistance from conservatives, the effort looked promising initially, with strong support from business, labor and President Obama. It was disappointing news for many when John Boehner, Speaker of the House of U.S. Representatives, conceded last week in a news conference that it is going to be politically difficult to move the overhaul forward this year.

Maybe all is not lost yet. As often happens on dozens of federal policy issues, if timing and politics make achieving national consensus impossible, there is still hope at the state and local level. Last week, Michigan governor Rick Snyder surprised many with the announcement of a creative plan to “fix Detroit” with smart immigrants by proposing a visa program that would attract 50,000 high-skill immigrants over five years.

In the context of waning political capital for the issue on Capitol Hill, this municipal immigration plan was seen as a bold move. After all, Detroit is not known as America’s most attractive immigrant destination.

The plan seeks to attract people with advanced degrees or exceptional abilities in the sciences, arts or business, whether already in the United States or from abroad. Critics suggest the skilled immigrants selected will not remain in Detroit, rather that they will move at the first chance to more entrepreneurial-friendly locations in the region, such as Chicago. There are also arguments that growth from entrepreneurial immigration will come at the expense of native-born Americans.

But supporters, including Mayor Mike Duggan and a significant portion of the city’s business community, think this immigration plan could help Detroit to rebuild itself beyond overcoming bankruptcy and point to the fact that jobs in the city’s R&D and high-tech sectors are currently going unfilled. Even the same New York Times op-ed that raises questions about Snyder’s plan admits, “Combined with other efforts by city officials to stimulate education, the arts, technology and manufacturing, a jolt of immigrant energy could help resuscitate a city that many have given up for dead.”

While final details, approval and effective implementation remain to be seen, one positive possible scenario is already looming on the horizon: a race among governors to attract skilled immigrants to their locations. It would not be the first time impatient Governors bypass stalemate in Washington, DC. As I have written about written multiple times, America needs a startup visa and needs to stop turning away the world’s smartest entrepreneurs and job creators who still view the country as the “shining city upon a hill.” The big question remains whether or not state action is able to embarrass Washington to get on with making it happen.

[image source: MML]

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