When Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan meets people, he likes to ask them to name five things that made America great. Almost always, he says, they wind up talking about the contributions made by immigrants. “I challenge anyone not to put immigration on that list,” he says. Certainly, he says, immigration has buoyed Michigan’s economy in recent years: the state’s unemployment rate now stands at 4.5 percent, down from a peak of 14.9 percent in 2009, thanks in part to an influx of foreign-born workers and investors. “There’s a lot of evidence that immigrants are job generators,” says Snyder, adding “diversity is a positive power. We get the opportunity to learn from one another, and we get more innovation happening when we’re more diverse.”
Now, Snyder — a Republican who has fostered a reputation as America’s most pro-immigration governor — is determined to bring even more immigrants to the Wolverine State. Since his election in 2011, he’s pushed the federal government to approve 50,000 new employment-based visas to bring new immigrants to Detroit, founded an Office of New Americans to help the state attract and retain foreign-born entrepreneurs, and created a statewide office — only the second of its kind in the nation — dedicated to helping foreign investors to secure visas. “I describe it as the ‘Statue of Liberty play’ — it’s what we stand for as a country, to be a welcoming place,” Snyder says. “It’s part of who we are.”
There’s a lot of evidence that immigrants are job generators. Diversity is a positive power. We get the opportunity to learn from one another, and we get more innovation happening when we’re more diverse.
Snyder traces his belief in the positive power of immigration back to his days as a venture capitalist, when he saw first-hand how immigrants were launching businesses and driving growth. “In my experience doing startups, a number of the companies that I worked with were founded by first or second-generation immigrants,” he says. “There’s a lot of data saying that immigrants tend to be more entrepreneurial.” In fact, immigrants founded a third of Michigan’s new high-tech businesses over the past decade — six times the rate at which native-born Americans founded companies. One success that Snyder particularly recalls from his VC days was HandyLab, a medical devices company founded by Indian-born University of Michigan graduates Kalyan Handique and Sundaresh Brahmasandra; the startup thrived, growing to employ 60 local workers before it was acquired by BD Medical Technology for $300 million in 2009.
And you don’t have to be a VC to see how much good immigrants have done for Michigan, Snyder says. “If you look at our history, we have a tremendous track record. There was a Canadian immigrant by the name of Dow, of course.” Among the state’s other major immigrant-founded businesses: grocery giant Meijer, founded in 1934 by a Dutch immigrant, and manufacturing giant Masco, founded in 1929 by an Armenian-American. Between them, the two companies now employ well over 100,000 people.
That’s the kind of success Snyder hopes to spark by rolling out the welcome mat for immigrants. Still, he says, there’s only so much that Michigan can do on its own. Federal reforms will be needed to open the door for more immigrant entrepreneurs and investors, and to help companies retain the bright, ambitious immigrants graduating from Michigan’s universities. “I think I’ve been pretty loud about that,” he says. “This is something that’s holding back our economic growth.” Unfortunately, Snyder says, it’s hard to win federal support for even fairly modest efforts, such as his proposals for new employment-based visas for the Detroit region. “That’d be a great economic boon, but it’s now caught up in Washington,” he says.
I don’t view this as a partisan issue — it’s a common-sense issue, an American issue. It’s just a good, smart answer for our country.
Snyder says he’ll keep fighting for immigration reform, even though it’s a stance that has earned him criticism from some fellow Republicans. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me I’m crazy,” he says. “But politics shouldn’t overcome good policy.” In the end, he adds, both Republicans and Democrats should focus on what makes sense for their constituents — and for Michiganders, that means encouraging educated, entrepreneurial immigrants to come in greater numbers. “I don’t view this as a partisan issue — it’s a common-sense issue, an American issue,” he says. “It’s just a good, smart answer for our country.”