The Brain Gain

How immigration and diversity can stimulate and enhance Michigan’s economy.

The government restructured the auto industry; now it needs to restructure immigration. Why is that important for Michigan?

To start, in 1847, a young man named William Ford immigrated to Dearborn from County Cork, Ireland. He became a prosperous farmer and respected community leader. In the summer of 1863, he and his wife, Mary, had a son named Henry, who went on to become one of the world’s most influential industrialists, and helped transform Michigan into a manufacturing juggernaut.

Currently, the most publicized portion of the immigration reform debate revolves around Arizona, which has thousands of illegal immigrants.

Under Arizona law, would William Ford have felt welcome enough to come to the U.S., where his son would go on to establish the assembly line and the $5 workday, not to mention his contribution to the Arsenal of Democracy? Doubtful.

Today, Henry Ford’s Michigan (i.e., the automotive industry) is in transition. There is consensus that the industry needs new thinking, new ideas, new technology, and a “green” focus. In other words, the domestic auto industry is evolving — migrating from brawn to brains. This is where immigration reform can help Michigan compete on a global scale.

A recent report from the Kauffman Foundation shows that immigrants, while accounting for 12 percent of the U.S. population, make up nearly half of all scientists and engineers with doctorate degrees. Nearly 70 percent of the men and women who entered the fields of science and engineering from 1995 to 2006 were immigrants. So it should come as no surprise that immigrants will help drive the Green Revolution.

America’s young scientists and engineers, especially those drawn to emerging industries like alternative energy, are the breadwinners of the future.

On top of the recession and the economic decline of the auto industry and its manufacturing base, Michigan is suffering from a “brain drain.” Not only are we hurting economically, but as the auto industry turns from blue collar to white collar, we are losing population.

Everyone knows of a college graduate in Michigan who wants to start a career elsewhere. In contrast, even in these times, when the forces of globalization have run smack-dab into a recession, there are many people who want to live and work in southeast Michigan. These are the highly skilled, educated, and motivated foreign nationals who are eager to participate in — and contribute to — our local economy.
In Michigan, we’re not talking about undocumented workers, people who threaten our security, or seasonal employment workers. Those are separate discussions currently dominated by fear-mongers and politicians looking to court votes. The Arizona law debacle does not apply here.

The people attracted to our state include prospective business owners and investors — job creators, industry starters, and innovation leaders — who will help feed the auto industry and other business sectors. These individuals are critical to the more than 330 transportation R&D companies in the state, as well as their suppliers.

But to boost immigration, government reform is needed. The problem is that the nation’s incredibly complex, slow-moving, and often-harsh immigration system is difficult to navigate. None of the reforms promised after 9/11 have sufficiently streamlined or made “fair” these procedures for those who have much to contribute to Michigan. Rather, proposals such as the Employ America Act could damage our attempts to harness global talent and keep the U.S. auto industry competitive.

Compounding the problem, Congress recently voted to raise fees for H1-B and L1 visas to discourage skilled workers from India and other countries from coming to the U.S.

An individual may come to Michigan through a student visa or one of the tightly rationed work visas (such as the H1-B program), only to face a difficult and unpredictable path when attempting to obtain a permanent visa or a green card. As a consequence, spouses end up marooned for years in other countries, families face uncertain futures as they navigate the uncertain and bumpy seas of the system, or, in the unique case of metro Detroit, highly-skilled immigrants work here but live in Windsor.

The bottom line: Despite the continued attraction of Michigan’s educational, research, and economic opportunities, as well as our quality of life, too many motivated individuals with ideas and talent choose to make their homes in other nations.

What are some solutions? To start, we need to continue the momentum of establishing an active EB-5 regional investment center to permit more entrepreneurs from abroad to bring their financial resources to Michigan and create jobs in exchange for a green card.

Second, many in the high-tech community, along with the Kauffman Foundation, support what is known as a “Founder’s Visa.” The permit would allow those with great ideas, but not necessarily the money, to come to the U.S. with venture capital to establish new businesses. In either of these instances, Michigan benefits from private funding.

Welcoming and nurturing talented and motivated newcomers — the so-called industrious immigrants — makes practical sense and is consistent with our heritage as a nation of opportunity.

Cooper is a partner and managing attorney at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy in Troy.