By Joseph Lichterman
DETROIT (Reuters) - Michigan Governor Rick Snyder on Thursday called for the U.S. government to set aside 50,000 special visas over the next five years to attract highly skilled immigrants to live and work in the bankrupt city of Detroit.
The proposal by the Republican governor would have to be implemented by the federal government at a time when immigration reform is one of the most contentious political issues.
Snyder hopes that a pool of talented workers would encourage companies to bring new jobs by relocating to the financially struggling city, which has seen its population decline to about 700,000 from a peak of 1.8 million in 1950.
The EB-2 visas would be aimed at individuals with advanced degrees and exceptional skills in fields such as the auto industry, information technology, healthcare and life sciences, Snyder said at an event announcing the proposal.
EB-2 visas allow individuals with special talents to enter the country without a job offer.
There is no precedent for special visas to be issued for a specific geographic area, Snyder said, but he envisions the immigrants being required to live and work in Detroit for a certain period of time. He compared the program to a current one that grants visas to physicians who agree to work in under-served areas.
Detroit has struggled to provide basic services to residents and filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in July with more than $18 billion in debt.
To move forward with his plan, Snyder would need the support of Democratic President Barack Obama.
Snyder, who will be in Washington on Friday, said he would meet privately with Obama administration officials. Snyder said he hoped the administration would be able to act unilaterally without requiring legislation.
"It's really taking up the offer of the federal government that they want to help more," Snyder told reporters. "Again, they made it clear they don't have dollar resources to necessarily help, but isn't this a great way that doesn't involve large-scale financial contributions from the federal government to do something dramatic in Detroit?"
The governor was joined by Detroit's Democratic Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit city council members to announce the plan.
Snyder is asking that 5,000 visas be issued in the first year, with 10,000 in each of the next three years, and 15,000 in the fifth year.
The program would target individuals looking to move to the United States as well as immigrants already in the country.
"Where else in the U.S. could you find a house or a lot for the prices you're going to find here? It's a good deal," Snyder said.
Homes have sold for as little as $500 in Detroit where one-fifth of the housing stock is considered abandoned and blighted.
The plan would make for "a dramatic increase nationally" in the number of foreign high-skilled workers, said Jeff Hauser, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, the largest organized labor group in the United States, but he said "this is not a practical proposal in any sense of the term."
Noting that states cannot expand the quota on their own, Hauser added, "And you cannot limit immigrants to a specific city and say that they have no rights to leave that city once they come" to the United States.
(Reporting by Joseph Lichterman in Detroit; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington.; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Lisa Shumaker)