Michigan Wants More Immigrants

Bucking his party, a GOP governor pushes to attract more immigrants

Rick Snyder has something to say to foreign students and entrepreneurs wary of settling in the U.S., where tough new laws in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina aimed at illegal aliens have also led to an exodus of legal workers: Come to Michigan.

“I’m the most pro-immigration governor in the United States,” says Snyder, a first-term Republican who believes his party’s focus on rounding up illegal immigrants is repelling talented foreigners he sees as crucial to the economic recovery. While Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich spar over who will more vigilantly guard the border, Snyder has assigned state agencies to persuade skilled foreigners to put down roots in Michigan. Snyder’s program will promote Michigan abroad as a friendly place for entrepreneurs to open businesses, and match employers to foreign students with training in science and engineering. He’s betting an influx of immigrants to the state, which led the nation in unemployment for much of the last decade as the auto industry collapsed, will help revive the economy. “I knew it was the right answer from doing startup companies,” says Snyder, a former venture capitalist who was chief executive officer of Gateway, the computer maker, in the 1990s. “They generated jobs.”

Snyder doesn’t want just anybody. “I’m not talking about illegal immigration,” he told voters in a Facebook Q&A this month. “Mine is a very narrow focus on people that have advanced degrees, PhDs and masters degrees in critical skill areas, or major entrepreneurs who have a background in capital who can come here and invest in our country.” He was against a Republican proposal in the state legislature for a law similar to Arizona’s, which gives police power to check the status of anyone suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. Although the measure may be effective at chilling illegal immigration, he says, it comes at the price of a hostile atmosphere where legal immigrants feel like they are always under suspicion.

Snyder’s plan, which mirrors the pro-immigrant arguments the U.S. Chamber of Commerce makes, has not encountered opposition from the state’s business community. And the governor has an ally in the Global Detroit International Student Retention Program, a collaboration among the state’s universities and employers to recruit talent overseas. A 2010 study, funded by the Detroit Regional Chamber and local foundations, showed that from 1996 to 2007, foreign-born Michigan residents were nearly three times more likely to start a business than those born in the U.S. Michigan’s immigrant population is also better educated: 37 percent of foreign-born Michigan residents have four-year college degrees, vs. 23 percent for citizens. Although there’s high demand for people with advanced degrees in science, engineering, and math, says Athena Trentin, who runs Global’s student-retention efforts, businesses are often reluctant to recruit from abroad, fearing red tape and cost. “A lot of them don’t know what it takes to hire the international student,” she says.

Despite his political apostasy, Snyder hasn’t taken much heat among state Republicans for his immigration stance. Unlike in the South and West, where voters have overwhelmingly supported tough laws, in Michigan they aren’t as worked up about the issue. Residents have long accepted large populations of immigrants from the Middle East, India, and Eastern Europe, says Bill Ballenger, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, a newsletter in Lansing. “There’s no great outcry about it.”

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