Archive for June 2011

Dear Immigrants: We want your business! Sincerely, Michigan

Much to my delight (and I’m sure to the delight of immigration attorneys across Michigan) Governor Snyder spoke about the positive contributions immigrants make during his State of the State speech in January.  It was a surprise to hear the newly elected Governor speak positively about immigration, an issue that has unfortunately become and increasingly political issue and dogmatic tool. Thankfully, Governor Snyder “gets it.” He understands the tremendous value immigrants contribute directly to our economy. Governor Snyder has publicly stated he opposes Arizona-like (SB-1070) anti-immigration legislation (many thanks to AIR of Michigan for its efforts on this front) and has taken pragmatic steps to increase the appeal of Michigan to foreign business.

Among other actions taken, Governor Snyder has called for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to take an active role in the development of pro-immigration business policy. This is a wonderful step in the right direction. Michigan should be investing its resources not only into bringing tourists here, i.e. the Pure Michigan campaign, but also on attracting and welcoming business investors and employers.

Based on the experience of our clients, the simple step of proactively reaching out to potential and new businesses already committed to Michigan from Square One would be most welcome, and welcoming, to foreign investors. A point of contact should be readily able to guide them through our laws, regulations, cultural norms, and myriad logistical challenges, to anticipate what those challenges may be and equip the business leadership with knowledge and resources that will better enable them to open and oeprate their business successfully, and should be available should an obstacle arise. Of course countless other obstacles and solutions already exist and need to be explored.

Moving beyond the walls of the office, it is imperative that Michigan consider the lives of foreign workers and their families as residents. When an immigrant comes to live and work in the U.S. for a period of a year, or a few years, or several years, it is important to remember that he or she is not just a visa number, or an employee. Rather, he or she is a resident and citizen (small “c”) of Michigan, eager to explore the beauty and culture of our State and Country. This is an aspect of immigration that, I believe, has been overlooked. We should make it as easy as possible not only to get here, but to live here.Yet simple aspects of daily life that Michiganders take for granted are unecessarily challenging for immigrants. Thankfully, solutions are apparent and accessible. For starters, it should be simpler and easier for foreign workers and their families in Michigan to obtain a driver’s license, qualify for in-state college tuition, and understand tax responsibilities.

Currently, the Secretary of State has in place an internal policy to automatically deny any B1/B2 visa holders a license. This is more restrictive than the federal laws and regulations, needlessly. A visitor in this status can be present for up to 18 months – denying him or her the ability to drive, upon paying fees and passing the required tests, makes no sense. How else are they to get around in Michigan, where mass transit is undeniably limited. Assuming he or she can prove legal status, current residence in Michigan, and identity, he or she should be able to obtain a license. This could impact potential foreign investors visiting Michigan for a long period as they explore business investment opportunities and/or family members visiting.

Additionally, for other visa holders, like those in TN, H, E, and L status, the process should be seamless. Yet, the staff at Secretary of State (SOS) branch offices regularly fail to recognize the meaning of documents issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), improperly questioning the validity of a visa or a person’s status. Any single discrepancy between the SOS and DHS record of names, including an obvious typo cleared up by a passport and other identity documents, results in denial of a driver’s license. SOS staff regularly instruct immigrants they must fix the error with DHS before a license can be issued. Obtaining a new document from DHS for name correction can take months and can be quite expensive. Similarly, immigrants from Latin America and the Middle East treat last names differently from the U.S., in a well-known and predictable manner. For example, an TN visa holder from Mexico will technically have two last names, the last name of her father followed by the last name of her mother. This is simply how it is done in that culture. However, it is extremely common for Latin Americans to use only one of those last names on a regular basis. Despite this widespread, commonplace, predictable practice, SOS branch offices regularly require applicants to provide documentation that matches the SOS system, even if her passport, work authorization card, and birth certificate all evidence her full name. Again, she will be told to rectify the name difference via DHS or Social Security. This is overly restrictive at worst, highly inconvenient at best.

Many foreign workers, their spouses, and children, who are eligible to attend school in Michigan are constructively prevented from doing so due to cost. Although they are residents of Michigan, and are often times home owners, qualifying for “resident” for purposes of receiving in-state tuition rates is burdensome. For those who can even qualify for in-state tuition at all, they must first show payment of Michigan taxes for at least a year. Instead of doing so, or paying extremely high international rates, they simply do not attend at all. Colleges that could be benefitting from their enrollment at any rate, lose out altogether, as does the larger economy to which they could contribute their increased knowledge and skill.

Lastly, foreigners must pay U.S. and Michigan taxes upon residing here for a certain period of time. Generally speaking, foreigners do properly file their taxes, but it is nonetheless a daunting system that may prevent others from paying, or from doing so easily. A section of the State of Michigan Treasury website devoted to immigrants, with simple tools to help determine whether they must file taxes could result in greatly increased tax revenue, and will at least be an attractive resource to foreign workers.

Overall, these are problems that appear minor but that dramatically frustrate the ease with which immigrants move to and integrate into life in Michigan. Yet, the solutions to solve these problems are relatively simple and are certainly easily achievable. Foreign investors are necessarily concerned with the quality of their employees’ lives, and consider the ease of living in a foreign place when selecting locations. Making the lives of investors, business owners, their employees and their families better, will indeed send the signal that not only is Michigan a wonderful place for foreigners to do business, it is a wonderful place for foreigners to live.

With Governor Snyder’s leadership and support, Michigan is poised to lead the 50 States toward an economy that encourages and embraces immigrants, countering the unproductive and misguided anti-immigration trend. Michigan has led the U.S. economy before, and by taking this new course, it will do it again. It is an exciting time to be a proponent of immigration in Michigan and I look forward to witnessing and contributing to the progress.

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