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Richard Herman devotes his days to helping immigrants secure H-1B visas. He is also the author of a book on the subject: Immigrant, Inc., which he co-wrote with veteran Plain Dealer reporter Robert L. Smith. It's a vocal treatise urging the federal government to unlock the gates and allow into the U.S. higher numbers of "entrepreneurial immigrants," holders of H-1Bs and similar visas, who are more likely than native-born Americans, they claim, to earn an advanced degree, invent something, and even be awarded U.S. patents.
"This is what this region needs: more access to global markets, more international capital, more international entrepreneurs," says Herman.
Together, Herman and Smith have also utilized the region's most influential media, The Plain Dealer, to publish immigrant success stories and editorials that push hard for immigrants with big ideas to make Greater Cleveland home. Without question, immigrants were the manpower and energy that took Cleveland to its post-WWII manufacturing glory, where a high school diploma and hard work earned one a good paycheck, a nice house, and a family. In modern Cleveland, such tales are soaked in the quaintness of days long gone.
But there are new immigrant success stories emerging, as Herman and Smith have pointed out in The PD. One of them is India native Asis Benarjie, who started Ovation Polymers in Medina. The company manufactures resin pellets used to make water bottles and food containers, and has roughly 40 employees working three shifts.
Other successes can be found throughout the region — and especially in its numerous ethnic enclaves, where small, typically homespun businesses are flourishing like they haven't in years.
Yet to many American information technology professionals and their unions, the label "entrepreneurial immigrants" is less about multiplying jobs and more about taking jobs away. In the Pacific Northwest, many major corporations have relied heavily on H-1B labor for decades, with results that are met with something short of universal acclaim.
WashTech, a Seattle-based IT union, advocates strongly against H-1B visas, which allow professional immigrants of advanced skill to work in America for up to six years. The union claims that thousands of H-1Bs brought in by Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, and other major corporations during the last 20 years have displaced American IT workers and other skilled professionals while degrading the wages and benefits of those with jobs.
After 9/11, the federal government lowered the number of H-1Bs allowed to enter the country each year from 200,000 to 85,000. Today, some 600,000 H-1B foreign guest workers are employed in the U.S., according to WashTech.
Herman and Smith cite the prosperity of top tech companies as evidence that the federal government should ease H-1B visa restrictions. "The companies founded by immigrants stand as icons of the era: Google, Intel, Yahoo, Hotmail, Sun Microsystems, YouTube and eBay," they say on their website, immigrantinc.com.
Global Cleveland chairman Baiju Shah distances Herman from the group's current mission. Though Herman is listed as being on the executive committee, Shah says he has not been a part of the actual funding and policy process. The Global Cleveland website, however, also lists Herman and his downtown law firm on its board of directors, which Shah directs.
Toward the end of a cordial phone interview conducted recently with Herman, the attorney was asked how many H-1Bs he processes each year and whether he expects that figure to rise significantly now that Global Cleveland is poised to launch.
"No comment," Herman replied before abruptly hanging up.
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The economy of the Pacific Northwest has been greatly influenced by the use of H-1B workers. But in Cleveland — a region graced with precious few tech-related giants by comparison — the effect of an influx of H-1Bs seems less clear.
Among the companies whose names have been first to appear in association with Global Cleveland, none showed interest in discussing the subject for this story.
Columbus-based Huntington Bank declined through a spokesman to answer questions regarding its $500,000 donation to Global Cleveland and whether it expects to locally employ any guest workers holding H-1B visas. The spokesman also declined to address Huntington's past use of H-1Bs. The website myvisajobs.com, a clearinghouse of H-1B totals for states and corporations, reveals the company has petitioned for just 23 such visas over the last decade.
According to an April 5 Plain Dealer article penned by Smith, Huntington plans to move 300 employees into new offices in floors above Global Cleveland in the former BP Building, now known as 200 Public Square.
"It's a multiyear commitment by the bank," Dan Walsh Jr., new president of Huntington's Greater Cleveland operations, told The PD, referring to Huntington's $500,000 gift. "We see this as an economic development engine. We want the whole world to know Cleveland is the place to achieve the American dream."
According to Baiju Shah, Americans will get their shot at that American dream too.
He says Global Cleveland has had to ask The Plain Dealer to stop referring to his group as the "Immigration Welcome Center." Its ultimate mission, he says, is to find the right person, whether American or immigrant, for the right job in Greater Cleveland.
"This is being driven by what the employee is looking for," says Shah, who is also president of the area recruiting firm BioEnterprise. "There's a broad mix of openings — and the challenge is to find enough of these [skilled workers] in the local community. Global Cleveland's greatest opportunity is to recruit back individuals who have a connection to Cleveland — such as former residents of the region or alumni of regional institutions — by matching them to job opportunities. The easiest opportunity is to hire locally — if the job fits the individual."
But as recently as Global Cleveland's first pep rally in April, references to attracting U.S. workers were as nonexistent as voices of opposition in the crowd. During the press conference, Shah led a parade of keynote speakers who took turns extolling the value of welcoming immigrants to Cleveland.
The heads of Huntington Bank and Forest City Enterprises each trotted out a Cleveland employee to the podium to illustrate the value of Global Cleveland's mission. Both guests hailed from foreign lands.
In Scene interviews in recent months with numerous executive committee members and institutional backers, welcoming entrepreneurial immigrants was the recurring theme.
Global Cleveland clearly traces its origins to the quest for finding foreign talent. In its early days, the "Immigrant Welcome Center" was celebrated in a 40-page PowerPoint presentation called "The Blue Print for Talent, Ideas and Innovation," which has made the rounds among area leaders for four years. Among other things, the presentation calls for the removal of federal caps on H-1Bs.
A copy of The Blue Print obtained by Scene does not say who authored it, but interviews with Global Cleveland backers say the plan was written by what is known as the "Core Blueprint People," which includes Richard Herman; Harry Weller, a local venture capitalist; Rafael Favila, an activist from the Latin community; and Alan Schonberg, co-founder of Management Recruiters International and a longtime activist in the Jewish community.
In 2008, Mark Santo, then-director of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs — which created the Global Cleveland program — told The Plain Dealer he wanted to establish Cleveland, like Silicon Valley, as an "H-1B city."
Shah insists that was yesterday.
"The Global Cleveland Initiative that we have convened and I have chaired since last July has always had the broader vision in terms of its focus," he says.
In some cases, Shah says, there are challenges in finding local talent to fill the region's 20,000-plus open positions. Already, Global Cleveland has helped establish a "skilled machinist" program at Cuyahoga Community College. The program's biggest problem, says Shah, is that many applicants are turned away because they fail to pass the pre-screening for enrollment: ninth-grade-level reading, arithmetic, and computer skills.
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