More Thoughts on Rick Snyder's Immigration Proposal

+ Brandon Fuller

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder wants to attract more high-skilled immigrants to Detroit—a policy that could be mutually beneficial for the immigrants and the city. To do so, he’s asking the federal government for a share of EB-2 visas, specifically 10,000 per year for 5 years. I’ve written before about how to improve the Governor’s proposal but I continue to believe that he is pushing the national immigration conversation in a very useful direction, and that many of the negative reactions to this idea are unfounded. I want to explore the idea further with the big caveat that I am not an immigration lawyer.

EB-2 visas are employment based green cards for highly-skilled or talented foreign workers who intend to stay in the United States permanently. Typically, an employer can only sponsor a foreign worker for an EB-2 visa after demonstrating that the job on offer cannot be filled with American labor, aka “labor certification.”

A foreigner can get around the labor certification requirement if her presence is deemed to be in the  national interest. This “national interest waiver” gets her an EB-2 visa without a job offer from an employer and without labor certification. Snyder’s proposal for Detroit hinges on this sort of waiver, as Wayne State law professor Jonathan Weinberg explains in this excellent WKAR interview.

Snyder would have the feds waive the labor certification process in exchange for a commitment on the part of immigrants to live and work in Detroit. This would give thousands of high-skilled immigrants who are willing to move to Detroit the opportunity to do so. What’s more, if I’m now interpreting the proposal correctly, Detroit’s EB-2 immigrants would be free to work for whoever they’d like in the city (including establishing their own firms) rather than being tied to one employer. This would improve the thickness of Detroit’s labor market, making it a more attractive location for firms.

Because Detroit’s EB-2 immigrants would be permanent residents, one interesting question is whether they could be legally required to stay in Detroit. Most permanent residents are free to live wherever they’d like. There does appear to be some precedent for legally requiring certain permanent residents to honor location commitments. For example, immigrant physicians who agree to work in underserved areas must do so for at least 5 years.

Yet, even if an EB-2 immigrant’s commitment to live in Detroit is not legally binding, evidence from Canada suggests the city could reasonably expect to retain immigrants. As Adam Ozimek points out, in Canada’s regional immigration program — the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) — immigrants are not legally bound to stay in their sponsoring province but most do so anyways.

All of that said, Snyder’s proposal is not a cure-all for Detroit (something he undoubtedly understands). Shikha Dalmia raises the important point that immigration alone will not necessarily improve Detroit’s economy. Without improvements in public safety and the efficiency of public service delivery, fewer immigrants will come and those who do will see their social and economic contributions diminished. 

I also think that Snyder’s proposal is far too narrow, both in its focus on Detroit and its attachment to the EB-2 visa category. The privilege to recruit additional immigrants should not be exclusive to Detroit. Many American cities stand to benefit from immigration. All states and localities should be able to recruit additional immigrants—highly skilled or otherwise—as they see fit. The feds should adopt a more federalist approach to immigration nationwide, along the lines that Sean Rust and I have described elsewhere.

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