Politics & Government
12:05 pm
Mon June 9, 2014

Visas for sale: Not everyone’s a fan of Gov. Snyder’s EB-5 center

Credit User: Nic Redhead / Flickr

Silverio Lopez and his son Antonio run their Tequila Cabresto brand out of their house in Southwest Detroit. They say about 60 restaurants in and around the city carry their brand of small batch, craft tequila. They also own a rim and tire shop just down the street. In total, they employ close to 10 people.

Silverio emigrated from Mexico in the early '80s. He says there were many reasons for settling down and starting a business in Detroit.

“The properties were cheap, the rent was cheaper, plus we had family here already,” he said through Antonio, who translated from Spanish.

The Lopez family exemplifies the kind of people Gov. Rick Snyder hopes to attract to Michigan – people with an entrepreneurial spirit who can create jobs.

But some critics of the governor’s new EB-5 visa program say it’s a slap in the face to immigrants like Silverio Lopez, who came here with nothing.

Under EB-5, foreign investors must have at least $500,000 to put into a development project that creates at least 10 jobs. In turn, that investor and his or her immediate family can all get visas to live or travel anywhere in the United States.

“We’re just letting somebody in simply because they have money,” said David North, a senior fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies – a think tank in Washington, D.C.

“You can buy your way in,” said North. “All you have to do is put up half-a-million dollars. That’s sort of part of the system by which the elite get what they want and the rest of us get what’s left.”

The governor’s office has touted Michigan’s statewide EB-5 center as only the second of its kind in the country – the other being in Vermont. But that’s not accurate. A third program in South Dakota has been riddled with controversy after investors’ money went missing, some visas were never issued, and the flagship development project failed miserably.

But state officials say those aren’t issues with the EB-5 program itself. They’re problems with the people who oversaw South Dakota’s program.

“We’re well prepared to do this kind of investment,” said Scott Woosley, executive director of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), which runs Michigan’s EB-5 center. “And I think that’s really what differentiates us from something that happened in South Dakota.”

Woosley says the state’s not interested in getting into a debate about whether it’s appropriate for immigrants to be able to buy their way into the US. He says it’s a no-brainer for the state to take advantage of a program that can attract investment and talent to Michigan and create jobs.

Back in Southwest Detroit, Antonio Lopez says if the state really wants to boost its economy, it should focus on attracting poor immigrants like his father.

“Eventually, these people don’t want to work hard labor their whole lives,” said Lopez. “They want to start their own business, do something for their families. So I think, the poorly educated person that comes to work the hard labor, they’re actually going to work harder for their goal.”

This story is the first in Michigan Public Radio’s occasional series “Migrating to Michigan.” We will explore Gov. Snyder’s efforts to attract immigrants, as well as issues facing immigrants living or wishing to live here in Michigan.