The push for more immigration targeted to specific regional areas as a
means to replace declining population while growing the workforce is
one of the main focuses for Ohio Business for Immigration Solutions
and other organizations.
As Ohio’s 134th General Assembly and the 117th Congress prepare to
convene new legislative sessions in January, business leaders have
joined forces to urge legislators to retool the country’s immigration
policy with an eye on filling population and workforce gaps.
Sensible immigration reforms, specifically place-based visas, are one of the priorities for the newly formed Ohio Business for Immigration Solutions (OBIS), a coalition of more than 20 Ohio businesses, trade associations, chambers of commerce and economic development groups.
Madison Whalen, the state organizer of OBIS, said the group plans to educate lawmakers on how reforming immigration could help the state’s workforce and economy.
“After having some introductory conversations, we learned that there was a real desire by a lot of business groups in the state to come together to focus on immigration reform policies,” said Whalen, who is a partner and government relations attorney at the law firm CHW Advisors. “In Ohio, we have over a half a million immigrants, who pay $5.7 billion in taxes that represents $14 billion spending power, which has a huge impact on Ohio, on our workforce and in our economy.”
Place-based immigration — the push for more immigration targeted to specific regional areas as a means to replace declining population while growing the workforce — is one of the main focuses for OBIS and other organizations in Northeast Ohio.
Groups, including the Greater Cleveland Partnership, are calling for a specific Great Lakes place-based visa program, which would allow foreign-born workers and entrepreneurs to migrate to former industrial regions experiencing consistent population decline, a weakened local economy and a need for workers with specialized skill sets.
“Immigration reform has been a key issue of ours from an advocacy standpoint,” said Marty McGann, executive vice president of advocacy and strategy at the Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP). “For several years, we have advocated for various reforms, but have landed, in recent years, on a place-based visa program because of the exceptional challenge within our community related to population decline.”
These proposed visa programs would be contingent upon holders maintaining employment or starting a business in specific areas of the country, rather than relying strictly on employer sponsorship like the H-1B visa program. Those visas are in high demand by the holders and, generally, large companies looking for skilled talent.
In 2020, the government received 201,011 applications for the temporary employment-based visa. It’s awarded to 85,000 annually, chosen by lottery from a pool of applicants with certain educational and professional attributes.
Of the more than 580,000 H-1B visa holders in the country, Ohio has 13,522. The biggest concentration of H-IB visa holders can be found in New York City (about 70,000); San Jose, Calif. (42,000); San Francisco (39,000); and Chicago (31,000), according to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The current restrictive quota system — coupled with the federal government’s attempt to restrict legal immigration, especially the H-1B visa — makes effective immigration unworkable for small and midsize businesses that need talent, McGann said.
“We know more immigration aligns with some of the technology-based economic development that we have been trying to do in our community, and the question regarding how we get a skilled workforce to advance some of those areas,” McGann said. “It really ties in with a lot of our local strategies.”
Joe Cimperman, president of Global Cleveland, an organization that connects immigrants to economic, social and educational opportunities in the region, said restrictive immigration policies represent one of the “biggest threats to the region’s economic revival.”
“The H-1B is probably the greatest gift to economic development in Northeast Ohio, but in 2016, we saw visa application acceptance rates at over 93%. Going through the exact same process for visas for the exact same job last year, we saw acceptance rates at 22%,” Cimperman said.
Beyond the H-1B visas, Cleveland can benefit from a higher influx of immigrants who can migrate on one of the 49 different visas available, including refugees, another form of immigration that has been curtailed recently, Cimperman said.
“Last year, we had 364 refugees come here. In 2016, we had 1,400,” he said.
These visa holders, often with high levels of education, also are an integral part of building the region’s entrepreneurial class, Cimperman said.
As of 2018, there were 126,873 immigrant residents in the Cleveland metro area, according to a 2018 study by the New American Economy, a bipartisan research organization that advocates for smart federal, state and local immigration policies. Those immigrants, who make up 6.2% of the population, include nearly 6,800 the organization classified as entrepreneurs.
“We have a saying at Global Cleveland that to immigrate is an entrepreneurial act,” Cimperman said.
Specific policy language for place-based immigration is still in the works, McGann said. The goal is to produce bipartisan legislation to increase the amount and type of immigration permitted based on a region’s need.
The need is even more important for the region’s post-pandemic economic recovery.
“Immigration has always been a challenge from a policy standpoint, but I think it’s incumbent upon us to take another run to ensure that this is about the economic benefit to our community and about advancing our region, and that immigrants serve a compelling role in helping accomplish that,” McGann said.