DETROIT — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder asked the federal government Thursday to set aside thousands of work visas for bankrupt Detroit, a bid to revive the decaying city by attracting talented immigrants who are willing to move there and stay for five years.
The Republican governor has routinely touted immigration as a powerful potential force for growing Detroit's economy, saying immigrant entrepreneurs start many small businesses and file patents at twice the rate of U.S.-born citizens.
"Let's send a message to the entire world: Detroit, Michigan, is open to the world," Snyder said at a news conference.
The proposal involves EB-2 visas, which are offered every year to legal immigrants who have advanced degrees or show exceptional ability in certain fields.
But the governor's ambitious plan faces significant hurdles: The visas are not currently allocated by region or state. And the number he is seeking — 50,000 over five years — would be a quarter of the total EB-2 visas offered.
The program would require no federal financial bailout, the governor said, only the easing of immigration rules and visa limits to help fill jobs in automotive engineering, information technology, health care and life sciences.
"It's really taking up the offer of the federal government to say they want to help more," Snyder said. "Isn't this a great way that doesn't involve large-scale financial contributions from the federal government to do something dramatic in Detroit?"
He said the Obama administration has "been receptive to us bringing significant ideas to them, and this would be near the top of the list."
Snyder, a first-term governor who made millions as a computer industry executive and venture capitalist, said it's not clear whether the White House could act administratively or if such a change would require legislative action.
He said he's talking about the proposal with Michigan's congressional delegation and plans private meetings Friday with administration officials while in Washington for a panel discussion about the economic benefits of an immigration overhaul.
The governor's proposal seemed to take officials by surprise at the State Department, which works with the Homeland Security Department to decide on visa requests.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Thursday that she was aware of the governor's comments but had no immediate response.
Snyder's office has said immigrants created nearly one-third of the high-tech businesses in Michigan in the last decade, and he cited a study that found for every job that goes to an immigrant, 2.5 are created for U.S.-born citizens.
Being more welcoming to immigrants would also make the city more attractive to employers.
"The point isn't just to say, 'Let's have a lot of jobs created in Detroit for immigrants,'" he said. "Let's step this up. Let's do something that could really be a jumpstart to the continuing comeback of Michigan and Detroit."
The city, the largest in American history to file for bankruptcy, has been hollowed out by a long population decline, from 1.8 million people in its heyday of the 1950s, to about 713,000 today at the time of the 2010 census. During that time, Detroit steadily lost many of its manufacturing jobs, and huge numbers of workers fled to the suburbs.
The governor is trying to find flexibility in a waiver that allows foreign workers with a master's degree or higher — or who demonstrate exceptional skills in science, business or art — to come to the U.S. if it's in the "national interest."
Snyder wants to broaden the definition of national interest to apply it to Detroit, likening the concept to one already in place where foreign-born physicians can get a green card after working in an underserved area for five years.
One critic of Snyder's proposal said it appears to dismiss immigrants who have not achieved high levels of education. Even if it does not take a specific job away from native-born job-seekers, it makes immigrants "more marketable than educated current residents," said the Rev. Horace Sheffield III, executive director of the Detroit Association of Black Organizations.
"What does that do to displace people who are born here and who don't have the education and are already competing for scarce jobs?" Sheffield said. "The other problem is the governor only picked educated immigrants. That only pits immigrants against immigrants."
About 1 in 5 Detroit residents are without a high school diploma, according to Detroit Future City, a 2012 report that examined how the city can remake itself.
Another 35 percent have diplomas, but no other kind of training. And for every 100 residents, there are only 27 jobs, the study found.
Under Snyder's plan, Detroit would be allocated 5,000 visas in the first year, 10,000 each of the next three years and 15,000 in the fifth year. Snyder is especially keen on keeping foreign students in Michigan, many of whom come to the state to earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, then leave.
In his annual State of the State address last week, he announced a plan to join two other states in putting immigration services under a special office, as well as a separate initiative to make Michigan the second state to run a regional visa program to attract immigrant investors for development projects.
Frank Venegas is chief executive and chairman of the Ideal Group, a family-owned manufacturing and construction company where the governor made Thursday's announcement.
Venegas, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, said Snyder's proposals would benefit the struggling city and the company he started in 1979, which has grown to incorporate several subsidiaries and annual revenue of more than $200 million.
"We're the greatest country in the world. Why can't we attract some of the greatest people in the world from different countries?"
Eggert reported from Lansing, Mich.