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.