Detroit Continues a Legacy of Inclusion

Thursday, 06 Feb 2014 06:55 AM

By Neal Asbury

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Some people count Detroit down and out. I'm not one of them. To do so would ignore the contributions that the American car manufacturing industry made to the world's industrial and economic development. And its center was Detroit.

Henry Ford is known as a visionary inventor, but he also saw the wisdom in creating a diverse workforce. According to a Ford Motor historical perspective, since its founding in 1903, "Ford has established itself as a premier American employer by supporting equitable and inclusive employment practices years before the law required it."

In 1913, when Henry Ford was paying the unheard of salary of $5 a day, Ford attracted thousands of immigrants and black Americans drawn to the prospect of earning twice the typical daily wage. The $5 day is credited with helping to create the black middle class.

By 1916, Ford employed people who represented 62 nationalities, as well as more than 900 people with disabilities. By 1919, so many people of Middle Eastern descent came to Dearborn and Detroit to work for Ford, that it lead to the creation of a local mosque — the first built in the United States.

So it made perfect sense to read that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is tapping into skilled immigrants to help rebuild Detroit. This is a tradition as old as this nation. Immigrants helped found some of America's oldest and most successful companies.

But today, instead of leveraging this energy, scores of overseas students possessing great potential attending U.S. universities are being forced to take their knowledge back home.

Yes, part of the problem is the American economy is not producing jobs, but the bigger problem is that our current immigration policy is broken. So, even highly skilled workers who want to remain in America are punished by a poorly administered visa program that forces technically savvy people to return home.

This is not old news, especially to the city of Detroit, which has seen its educated and trained workers flee to other markets. There's a void that started in 2000, when between 2000 and 2010, Detroit lost 25 percent of its population. To prosper, Detroit needs workers, and more importantly, talented workers, if it is to reemerge as a Mecca of American ingenuity.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Snyder "will request 50,000 special federal immigration visas over the next five years to attract foreign professionals who are willing to work and live in the city. The plan calls for 5,000 visas the first year, and 15,000 in the last."

The immigration visa in question is the EB-2, which is only available to professionals with advanced degrees and people with "exceptional ability in the sciences, arts or business."

Imagine that — a smart way to handle immigration! But before we all cheer, only 140,000 such visas are available each year, and in most years, the limit isn't even reached.

What would it cost the U.S. government to boost the number of EB-2 visas? Nothing.

That's right; just lift the cap on EB-2 visas, and let Detroit businesses and entrepreneurs tap into the potential of highly talented foreign workers — as Henry Ford did more than 100 years ago.

Ironically, for the program to work, it would require "independent fiduciary management of the pension resources." So the union pension fund that helped get Detroit into this mess in the first place, and the union demands that helped eliminate jobs, must now agree to play ball.

The initial signs don't look good. Tina Bassett, spokeswoman for Detroit's General Retirement System, said the funds appreciate the effort, but "it is our fundamental belief that the pensions are protected by the Michigan Constitution and it should not be a part of these bankruptcy proceedings."

Once again, union pension comes before the welfare of a once great city that is still contemplating selling its art collection and its zoo animals to pay down its debt and get it out of bankruptcy.

Detroit lacks money, not vision. Let us hope that Snyder's immigration proposal comes to fruition. It would change the lives of talented immigrants and all the citizens of Detroit. It would cause Henry Ford to smile.

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