Talk about the economic challenges facing Ohio, and it isn’t long before the words “brain drain” surface in the conversation. The concern is that talented young people are exiting to pursue brighter prospects elsewhere. Actually, there is a larger talent problem facing Northeast Ohio and the rest of the state. Young people often leave home. The trouble here is our struggle to attract more people to come join us.
Thus, it was heartening to see the gathering in Cleveland on Tuesday at a forum devoted to “U.S. Immigration Policy and the Midwest Economy.” Participants examined the findings of a bipartisan, 12-state task force that included Frank Douglas, the president and chief executive of the Austen BioInnovation Institute. The panel, among other things, has highlighted the value in regions like Northeast Ohio, those aging and growing slowly, of throwing open their doors to immigrants.
Look at Chicago, its enhanced vitality of the past decade driven in many ways by an energized and expanding Hispanic community. The new arrivals do not take from those already here. They add to the whole, the benefits spread broadly.
Mayor Don Plusquellic has pursued a variation on the idea, attracting foreign capital and accompanying minds to Akron, complementing and advancing strengths of the city economy.
Much rightly has been made about the need to make room for a larger number of highly skilled immigrants. The Greater Cleveland Partnership, sponsor of this week’s forum, would like to see the creation of a “high-skilled immigration zone,” the Great Lakes region, for instance, allowed to lower hurdles for researchers, entrepreneurs and other proven talent coming our way.
It cannot be stressed enough that for all the talk about taxes and regulations, the game-changers for an economy are people. A top-notch scientist often draws other talented people, plus additional resources spent and invested locally, triggering a healthy ripple effect. Yet a region should not limit its pursuit to the highly skilled. Those without such credentials often bring energy and cleverness, seizing opportunity in the form of a small business or other productive endeavor.
In Washington now, President Obama and members of Congress from both political parties have been narrowing their differences on a comprehensive immigration reform bill. That legislation must expand substantially the visas for the highly skilled and include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here, long productive and contributing to their communities. The president and lawmakers also would do well to add provisions seizing the chance to link directly the Great Lakes with expanded immigration.
A Northeast Ohio looking to spur growth and job creation must mobilize to attract all the eager and ambitious people that it can.