Immigration reform would help Detroit

Lolita Brayman and George P. Mann

As the pressure mounts on the United States to aid refugees worldwide, Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan are busy preparing Michigan to step up with resettlement efforts. Except for Germany, few European countries are recognizing the economic benefits that refugees and migrants can add to society. In Detroit, immigrants can jumpstart an underpopulated city's economy with new skills and resources. Political hurdles, however, are keeping the welcome mat from being rolled out.

Since the majority of refugees are coming from North Africa and the Middle East, with a large number of Syrians escaping the country's civil war, Detroit's large Arab community is a culturally welcoming landing pad for newcomers. President Obama has pledged to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next 12 months and Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the administration is hoping to increase the number of total refugees to 100,000 in 2017. But Republican presidential candidates are fearful of the security risks – terrorists, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Ben Carson say, could sneak into the country under the guise of refugees.

Snyder is taking a different stance on the issue and singling himself out from the rest of his Republican party by assessing Michigan's capabilities of accepting more Syrians. His argument is an economic one: "Detroit must harness the power of skilled immigrants to grow its economy, increase its tax base and reverse its population decline," he explained. Detroit has lost more than 1 million people since the mid-1900s and Snyder has sought to address this problem with proposals to grant visas to highly skilled immigrants since 2014.

Duggan also recently announced plans to launch an international affairs division aimed at attracting foreign investment and preparing Detroit to host more refugees.

Despite these promising discussions, no clear policy guidelines are being set at either the federal or local level. Snyder continues to be vague about his political stand on immigration reform, even though he is "in talks" with the federal government on determining a process for accepting refugees; and Duggan is ignoring legal barriers and political considerations of Detroit becoming a refugee hub. For starters, immigration law and the resettlement of refugees is a federal law issue.

Without large scale immigration reform, and in today's political climate where immigrants are thrown back and forth between Democrats and Republicans like a political football, it is hard to imagine the mechanics of resettling 10,000 Syrians in the country, especially since the U.S. has accepted less than 2,000 in the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

Once the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has given a displaced person official refugee status, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program must process all applicants. This includes security checks, medical examinations, and interviews that will deem the person safe for entry into the country. The screening process can take up to two years and so far, Homeland Security and the State Department have not proposed ways of speeding it up.

During a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing last week, Michigan congressman Mike Bishop voiced his concern about vetting procedures. Many Michigan officials and residents are concerned about groups of people skipping steps and admitted without proper security screening, he explained.

Thirty Syrian families have been resettled in the greater-Detroit area so far, that's about 158 people. But the area is home to the fourth-largest population of Syrian immigrants in the U.S. – approximately 3,000 people and local communities are eager to accept more.

While large scale immigration reform is doomed to be merely a talking point until the 2016 presidential election, Snyder and Duggan should continue their efforts at the grassroots level and support organizations, churches, mosques and community-oriented nonprofit groups that help immigrants. They should consider taking a more public stand and push for immigration reform and a path to citizenship.

Lolita Brayman is an attorney and the communications coordinator at George P. Mann & Associates. George P. Mann is the principal attorney at George P. Mann & Associates and an advocate with over 30 years of immigration experience.