Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder asked the federal government Thursday to set aside thousands of work visas for highly skilled immigrants willing to live and work in the bankrupt city of Detroit for five years.
"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 like the auto industry, information technology, health care and life sciences, Snyder said at an event announcing the proposal.
But the governor's 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 proposal comes a day after Snyder announced a plan to commit $350 million in state funds to help shore up Detroit's pension funds and prevent valuable city-owned art from being sold to pay the city’s debts.
There is no precedent for special visas to be issued for a specific geographic area, Snyder said. But he compared the program to a current one that grants visas to physicians who agree to work in under-served areas.
To move forward with his plan, Snyder would need the support of the Obama administration and to accomplish an expansion of immigration policy at a time when immigration reform is one of the most contentious political issues.
Snyder, a first-term governor who made millions as a computer industry executive and venture capitalist, said that on Friday he will be in Washington, where he plans to meet privately with Obama administration officials. Though "it's really early in the process," Snyder said he was hopeful the administration would be able to act unilaterally without requiring legislation.
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.
The Republican governor was joined by Detroit's Democratic Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit city council members to announce the plan.
"It's really taking up the offer of the federal government that they want to help more," Snyder told reporters. "Again, they made it clear they don't have dollar resources to necessarily help, but isn't this a great way that doesn't involve large-scale financial contributions from the federal government to do something dramatic in Detroit?"
Snyder is asking that 5,000 visas be issued in the first year, with 10,000 in each of the next three years, and 15,000 in the fifth year.
The program would target individuals looking to move to the United States as well as those already in the country.
Snyder called attention to more than 25,000 international students who study at colleges and universities in Michigan, which has faced the problem of a "brain drain" of recent college graduates.
"Where else in the U.S. could you find a house or a lot for the prices you're going to find here? It's a good deal," Snyder said.
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 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.
Al Jazeera and wire services