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Sandy K. Baruah: Immigration reform would help Detroit turn things around

From Detroit Free Press

By Sandy K Baruah

September 14, 2013

As Detroit navigates bankruptcy, there is no doubt that talent will play a key role in the city’s recovery. Maintaining the world-class work force already present in the region, and adding more highly skilled workers, will attract businesses, innovation and investment from around the world.

While there is no silver bullet for Detroit’s fiscal challenges, meaningful immigration reform would provide a big boost to the city’s recovery.

There is no shortage of facts linking immigrants to economic growth and job creation. More than 25% of high-tech firms started in the U.S. from 1995 to 2005 were founded by immigrants. Thirty percent of recent small-business growth from 1990 to 2010 was because of immigrants. This is an issue that took center stage at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference. Speakers, including Gov. Rick Snyder, reminded us that there are 60,000 unfilled jobs because of the shortage of highly skilled workers in Michigan. That’s productivity left on the table.

Fortunately, there’s a solution to that talent gap — and that path forward is meaningful immigration reform and expanding the number of H1-B visas available in this country. Doing so would open the way for highly skilled immigrants to bring their skills, expertise and training to the Michigan and American work forces.

Expanding the number of H1-B visas would immediately increase our businesses’ ability to compete in the global economy. Already a hotbed of tech talent and home to top-notch universities, Detroit would be a natural destination for these highly skilled workers, as well as the global investors and business that follow such employees.

Employers have long been frustrated in their efforts to recruit foreign tech talent because U.S. immigration policy limits visas to only 65,000 a year. That inadequate limit has been in place for more than 20 years, even though immigrant workers with degrees or special training in STEM and computer science are a prime source of talent for U.S. companies.

This is why the Detroit Regional Chamber is supporting an immigration reform bill now in the U.S. House known as the SKILLS Visa Act. Until America’s schools start producing more tech-savvy graduates, Michigan won’t get highly skilled immigrants without an expanded supply of skilled-worker visas, and that need is echoed in tech centers across the country. The expansion of visas proposed in the SKILLS Visa Act would meet that need. The bill also would encourage creation of a national STEM and computer science education fund. The money, financed through employer application fees for visas and green card residency permits, would be available to every state to improve teaching in tech-related subjects in K-12, junior colleges and universities.

Passing the SKILLS Visa Act would be an investment in Michigan and Detroit’s future, and position our country to regain its rapidly eroding talent advantage.