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After decades of counting on a steady stream of new residents to fuel its economy, Florida is now confronting a power failure. Population growth has gone negative in Central Florida and across the state.

As we recently argued, the state's leaders would be wise to adjust their thinking to this new demographic landscape. They need to focus on improving the quality of life in the state through improvements in areas such as growth management, transportation, education, health care and economic development. Gains could discourage more Floridians from fleeing the state, and attract new residents and employers.

But leaders also need to be on the lookout for simple yet creative approaches to help get the state's economy out of its current rut. One opportunity awaits overseas.

Surveys have shown that the United States is among the most coveted destinations for people in other countries who have the will and the means to retire abroad. However, U.S. immigration policy discourages such relocations. There is no visa category that allows foreign retirees who buy vacation or retirement properties in the United States to live here long-term or enter and leave this country without restrictions.

The United States is missing the yacht. Other countries throughout the world — including Australia, Mexico, Panama, Spain, Thailand and the United Kingdom — have created their own visa programs to better compete for retirees who can afford to live abroad.

As envisioned by its advocates, a new U.S. retirement visa would be available to foreign retirees who buy a home for at least the median value in the community where they would be living. They'd have to pass a security check and agree not to take a job. They'd need to document sufficient assets, and health insurance, to avoid burdening U.S. social safety-net programs.

The United States already has taken economic benefits into account in other immigration policies. There are longer-term visas for foreign workers who have specialized job skills, and for foreign investors who have created jobs for Americans.

U.S. immigration policies are set on the federal level, so Florida's leaders would need to persuade the state's delegation in Congress to spearhead creation of a retirement visa.

With Florida among the most popular states for foreign property buyers, it would stand to benefit more than others. In 2007-08, Florida accounted for about a quarter of all foreign real-estate purchases in the United States, according to Florida TaxWatch, an independent policy-research organization in Tallahassee. More buyers from abroad could help work off the state's huge glut of unsold homes faster.

TaxWatch concluded in a report issued earlier this year that a retirement visa could add tens of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy — up to $27 billion to Florida alone — over the next decade. It could create more than 1 million jobs in the United States, and more than 300,000 in Florida, during the same period.

Many in Congress felt so burned by the fiery debate over comprehensive immigration reform a few years ago that they might have little stomach for taking up anything related any time soon. But the issues that proved most contentious in that debate — possible citizenship for illegal immigrants, the impact on the U.S. job market and the burden on social programs — would not be a factor in creating a visa for well-heeled retirees.

Congress and the president still need to tackle broader issues in immigration, including the fate of the 11 million-plus illegal immigrants and the needs of industries such as agriculture that rely on them. The Obama administration recently postponed consideration of comprehensive legislation until next year.

Lawmakers could signal they're ready for tougher immigration issues if they can agree on this easy one, and help spark an economic recovery.

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/opinion/orl-edped-retirement-florida-immigr082509aug25,0,2094978.story

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