DETROIT — For Detroit, a city that has watched a population in free fall, officials have a new antidote: immigrants.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced plans Thursday to seek federal help in bringing 50,000 immigrants to the bankrupt city over five years as part of a visa program aimed at attracting talented immigrants who are willing to move there and stay for five years.
The Republican governor has routinely touted immigration as a powerful potential force for growing Detroit’s economy, saying immigrant entrepreneurs start many small businesses and file patents at twice the rate of U.S.-born citizens.
“Let’s send a message to the entire world: Detroit, Michigan, is open to the world,” Snyder said at a news conference, which came a day after he backed plans to commit up to $350 million in state funds to help shore up Detroit pension funds and prevent the sale of valuable city-owned art.
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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.
The governor’s plan faces significant hurdles: The visas are not now 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 program would require no federal financial bailout, the governor said, only the easing of immigration rules and visa limits to help fill jobs in automotive engineering, information technology, health care and life sciences. “It’s really taking up the offer of the federal government to say they want to help more,” Snyder said.
He said the Obama administration has “been receptive to us bringing significant ideas to them, and this would be near the top of the list.”
Snyder, a first-term governor who made millions as a computer-industry executive and venture capitalist, said it’s not clear whether the Obama administration could act administratively or if such a change would require legislative action.
He said he’s talking about the proposal with Michigan’s congressional delegation and plans private meetings Friday with administration officials while in Washington for a panel discussion about the economic benefits of an immigration overhaul.
Snyder’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 said Thursday that she was aware of the governor’s comments but had no immediate response.
The proposal comes as part of a push in Midwestern cities — including Chicago, St. Louis and Dayton, Ohio — to jump-start growth by attracting entrepreneurial immigrants.
“This is one way you grow the economy,” said Richard Herman, a lawyer in Cleveland who advises cities on such matters and who praised Snyder’s notion. “The Rust Belt has needed this for decades.”
Snyder’s office has said immigrants created nearly one-third of the high-tech businesses in Michigan in the past decade, and he cited a study that found that for every job that goes to an immigrant, 2.5 are created for U.S.-born citizens.
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.
The governor is trying to find flexibility in a waiver that allows foreign workers with a master’s degree or higher — or who demonstrate exceptional skills in science, business or art — to come to the United States if it’s in the “national interest.”
Snyder wants to broaden the definition of national interest to apply it to Detroit, likening the concept to one in place where foreign-born physicians can get a green card after working in an underserved area for five years.
Mike Duggan, the new mayor of Detroit, who has said he wanted to see an increase in the population within five years, said he backed the idea, as did an array of city leaders who attended the governor’s announcement.
“What seemed like a politically impossible thing in Detroit has changed dramatically,” Duggan said. “The leadership of this community is united in saying we are going to take full advantage of the governor’s initiative, and we are going to make sure everybody understands that Detroit has been historically and is today truly open to the world.”
Still, the politics may be complicated in Detroit, a mostly black city in which 38 percent of people live below the poverty level.
“There will be some whose vantage point is going to be: ‘OK, but what are you going to do to help the people who are already there?’ ” said Eric Foster, a political consultant in Detroit.
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.
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.
An additional 35 percent have diplomas but no other kind of training. And for every 100 residents, there are only 27 jobs, the study found.
Under Snyder’s plan, Detroit would be allocated 5,000 visas in the first year, 10,000 each of the next three years and 15,000 in the fifth year. Snyder is especially keen on keeping foreign students in Michigan, many of whom come to the state to earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, then leave.
Frank Venegas is chief executive and chairman of the Ideal Group, a family-owned manufacturing and construction company where the governor made Thursday’s announcement.
Venegas, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, said Snyder’s proposals would benefit the struggling city and the company he started in 1979, which has grown to incorporate several subsidiaries and annual revenue of more than $200 million.
“We’re the greatest country in the world. Why can’t we attract some of the greatest people in the world from different countries?”
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.