Cleveland Rolling out Welcome Mat for Foreign Investment


Back in April, I wrote about efforts in some U.S. cities, including Cleveland, to attract more educated workers and foreign investment. The idea being promoted by Cleveland immigration attorney Richard Herman and others is to establish high-skill immigration zones where companies making investments would not be subject to H-1B restrictions.


A precedent exists in EB-5, an employment-based visa category created by Congress in 1990 and regulated by the Citizenship and Immigration Services division of the Department of Homeland Security. Foreigners who invest money in new commercial projects that create 10 new full-time jobs can receive a Green Card through the EB-5 program. In economically disadvantaged areas like Cleveland, the investment level begins at $500,000.


An effort to attract foreign investment to Cleveland is still under way, according to a recent cleveland.com story, which details the city's efforts to establish a Talent Blueprint Project, with the aim of luring more foreign students, workers and entrepreneurs. It offers the example of Asis Benarjie, a native of India who founded Ovation Polymers in Medina, Ohio, in 2004. Since then, the business has expanded its work force to 40.


The article also mentions a frequently-cited Duke University study that found foreign-born entrepreneurs founded one of every four new companies in technology and engineering during the decade ending in 2005. (The number was one in seven in Ohio.) A newer study from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation also found that immigrant entrepreneurial activity grew from 2006-2007, while the rate of activity for native-born Americans remained flat.


The Cleveland Council on World Affairs intends to apply for consideration as an EB-5 region, a designation already enjoyed by about two dozen other U.S. metro areas, including Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.


In a parallel effort, the council wants to adopt the immigration-zone idea that would eliminate H-1B caps. Mark Santo, who leads the council, says the lack of a cap, combined with the area's low cost of living, schools such as Case Western Reserve University, and perks like free business-incubator space could attract tech employees who have amassed wealth through stock options by working for companies like Google and now want to start their own businesses.


Economic incentives notwithstanding, areas like Cleveland will need to foster a more welcoming attitude toward foreign investors, say several folks interviewed in the story. A low cost of living is obviously not what attracts immigrants to areas like New York and California, but they do offer atmospheres that promote diversity.


Ken Kovach, head of the International Community Council, which represents 120 nationalities in the Cleveland area, recommends installing signage in foreign languages at the city's airport and adding other "symbols that would pique international interest." It'll take political savvy to get this done in regions like Cleveland, where many residents deeply resent the loss of manufacturing jobs to low-cost countries like China.