DETROIT – For Detroit, a city that has watched a population in free fall, officials have a new antidote: immigrants.
Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan 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 those with advanced degrees or exceptional abilities in science, business or the arts.
Under the plan, which is expected to be formally submitted to federal authorities soon, immigrants would be required to live and work in Detroit, a city that has fallen to 700,000 residents from 1.8 million in the 1950s.
“Isn’t that how we made our country great, through immigrants?” said Snyder, a Republican, who last year authorized the state’s largest city to seek bankruptcy protection and recently announced plans to open a state office focused on new Americans.
Later, he added, “Think about the power and the size of this program, what it could do to bring back Detroit, even faster and better.”
The fate of Snyder’s particular plan – unusual, officials say, for the way it envisions allotting such visas to a specific city – remains uncertain because federal authorities have yet to receive a formal request.
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.”
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 yet be complicated in Detroit, a mostly black city where 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.
The Rev. Charles Williams II of the civil rights group National Action Network said he believed that Detroit, as well as other Midwestern states, should be pro-immigration.
“However,” he said, “I will say, on the other end of this, I think it’s a little ambitious for Gov. Snyder to put together a plan to induce more population when still we have to work on double-digit unemployment and high poverty that’s already in our city right now.”
But advocates of bringing an influx of immigrants into the city say the outcome will ultimately benefit longtime residents, too, bringing new business enterprises and jobs, as well as a more stable tax base. “They’re going to have jobs as part of this process, but the part you should focus in on, in particular, are all the jobs they’re going to create for Detroiters, for Michiganders,” Snyder said.