Thirteen years ago, a friend who runs a political PR firm urged me to meet a man he saw as a visionary politician who he was going to be elected mayor and transform Detroit.
His name was Kwame Kilpatrick. We all know how that turned out, but nobody did then. What was the same then and now, however, was Detroit’s need for jobs and money.
Over the years, I had learned one thing: If you want to jump-start an economy, what you need are immigrants. Driven, motivated, immigrants who want a better life.
I asked Kilpatrick what he thought of the idea of opening Detroit to a flood of immigrants who could transform the city. His eyes narrowed. “Well, I don’t know about that,” he said. It was clear he was only interested in people likely to vote for him. He and others were also suspicious of diluting Detroit’s overwhelmingly black population.
Well, a decade can make a lot of difference. Yesterday, when Gov. Rick Snyder formally proposed bringing at least 50,000 new immigrants to Detroit over the next five years, he was joined by Detroit’s mayor and council president.
One silver lining of Detroit’s economic crisis has been a general realization that the only color that should count in the Motor City is green, for economic and environmental renewal.
Immigrants have been the leading force in transforming America since the first ones walked across the Bering Strait. Over the last 20 years, some of the most remarkable stories I know belong to asylum seekers who turn up at a Detroit shelter called Freedom House. They arrive after being physically and psychologically tortured and not speaking a word of English.
Within what seems like minutes after they gain permission to stay, they are working full time, becoming entrepreneurial, creating jobs. Gov. Snyder gets that. There’s a special visa program now known as EB 2, which allows 40,000 immigrants with advanced degrees or special skills to come to America.
Gov. Snyder wants one-quarter of these visas reserved for Detroit over the next five years. Actually, he wants 5,000 immigrants the first year, 10,000 for each of the next three and 15,000 in the final year.
That may sound like a lot of people, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the hordes who poured in to work on Detroit’s assembly lines a century ago. Snyder has long been a believer in immigration. He’s been trying to attract skilled immigrants through his Global Initiative Program for some time.
Last week, he proposed opening an Office for New Americans to help them adjust to life here, and he also wants Washington to allow Michigan to expedite visas for immigrants with capital who want to open businesses and hire employees.
The history of modern-day America is largely one of motivated and driven immigrants who worked like demons and created jobs. There will still be some who are suspicious that immigrants will take jobs from Detroiters.
News flash. There aren’t any jobs to take. Instead, the idea is that this flood of talented newcomers will create them. This could just be the best idea any of our governors has had in a long time.