State, Tech host immigrant forum

HOUGHTON – Gov. Rick Snyder has begun an initiative to increase the number of foreign students in Michigan higher education institutions and increase foreign investment in the state, and Friday those issues were a topic of a forum in Houghton.

At the Michigan Technological University Lakeshore Center, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and representatives of other state government agencies talked about the efforts to improve Michigan’s economy by encouraging immigrant entrepreneurship, and making it easier for foreign students to stay in the state. By coordinating different state agencies and departments, Calley said those efforts can be successful.

“We’d like to facilitate the relationships,” he said.

Calley said Houghton was chosen to announce the new efforts because of the area’s history of business creation by immigrants, and because of the tradition of foreign students attending Tech.

“You have special unique competitive efforts here,” he said.

Attracting and keeping foreign students and immigrant entrepreneurs will be necessary to take the state’s economy to the next level, Calley said.

Scott Woosely, executive director of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, said that agency is overseeing the state’s federal Employment Based Immigration: Fifth Preference (EB-5) program, which provides access to a United States immigration Green Card and a path to citizenship for immigrant entrepreneurs who meet minimum requirements for investing in Michigan companies and hiring Michigan workers.

Woosely said to take part in the program, an immigrant must invest $500,000 in Targeted Employment Areas, or $1 million in non-Targeted Employment Areas. Most of the state has TEAs. At least 10 jobs for United States citizens must be created at the businesses in the program.

The EB-5 program for Michigan was approved by the federal government in March, Woosely said. Michigan is only the second state to have the program after Vermont.

Woosely said EB-5 representatives have recently traveled to the Middle East and Asia to talk about the Michigan EB-5 program.

“There is a huge demand for these visas,” he said.

Woosely said encouraging immigrant university students to stay in the country is also a goal of the governor.

“We have some of the best students in the world, and we’d like to keep them here,” he said.

Next to speak was Bing Goei, director of the newly-created Michigan Office of New Americans.

Goei said part of his job is making Michigan’s economy grow by attracting immigrants to the state.

“Our mandate is in the area of talent retention,” he said.

It’s not logical to train students well then send them home to become competitors of American companies, Goei said.

“There’s a resource there we want to maintain and keep in the state of Michigan,” he said.

Goei said the reason the governor and state officials are making the effort to get and keep immigrant students and entrepreneurs is to bring jobs back to the state. Between 2000 and 2009, 800,000 jobs were lost in the state. Since 2010, 255,000 jobs were created, but more are needed.

“What made Michigan great in the past, and what will make it great in the future is immigration,” he said.

Immigration reform in Congress is not moving forward, and Goei said the states have to move ahead on the issue themselves.

“We have to find creative ways while the federal government is figuring out how to do immigration reform,” he said.

Steve Arwood, of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, said many immigrants may be certified or licensed to do particular jobs in there native countries, but the certifications and licensing may not easily transfer in the United States.

“We’re working through all that,” he said.

Arwood said LARA is also helping foreign investors understand Michigan’s regulations.

Dr. Athena Trentin, director of Global Talent Retention Initiative of Michigan, said that agency began just three years ago on a small scale.

“Since then we’ve grown tremendously,” she said.

Trentin said in Michigan there is a talent gap of people 25 to 34 years old. Many foreign students would like to stay in Michigan if they can find internships and jobs.

However, Trentin said many Michigan employers aren’t considering hiring foreign students, so the GTRI is working with 100 Michigan employers to encourage them to hire foreign students.

“We’re making the process for employers easier,” she said. “We’re making the process less frustrating for students.”