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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Michigan Immigrant Population Lags Nation

July 20, 2017

ANN ARBOR – It is no secret that the Trump administration is considering dramatically speeding up the pace at which immigrants here illegally could be deported.  Arrests nationwide have soared since Donald Trump took office, and dozens of Iraqi nationals—many of them Christian Chaldeans–were swept up in immigration raids in June.

Surveys have shown that some native-born Michiganders, especially blue-collar workers, resent even immigrants who are fully legal for fear they are taking jobs away from them. 

Well, an important new study of immigrants in Michigan was released last week that revealed this startling truth:  Immigrants are one of the best things Michigan’s economy has going for it.  They create jobs rather than take them, are, on average, better educated than native-born, and especially dominant in the high-tech field, (where they’ve become major job creators), and in the revitalization of Detroit.

Contrary to popular impression, few – less than one percent—are here illegally.

“Michigan’s immigrant community punches above its weight in terms of new innovation and business development,” said John Austin, director of the Ann Arbor-based Michigan Economic Center, which produced the study, called “Michigan: We Are All Migrants Here.” 

“Michigan and Detroit would have kept losing population in the past decade if not for immigrants, and we depend on them to rebuild communities, start new businesses and put people to work,” added co-author Steve Tobocman.  The Michigan Economic Center is officially non-partisan, but the two main authors of the report are not.  Austin, who founded the center, is a 55-year-old Democrat who was chair of Michigan’s state board of education before being narrowly defeated last November.  Tobocman, 47, is also a Democrat and a former state representative.

Indeed, their report’s subtitle is “Immigrant Engine of Economic Growth Threatened by Trump Administration Policy.” But the report (easily found online at does, in fact, provide impressive evidence that immigrants are making a major positive difference.  In fact, their main drawback is this:  There simply aren’t enough of them. Though Gov. Rick Snyder is a Republican, he saw this early on and, unsuccessfully, lobbied Washington in 2014 to give Michigan 50,000 extra visas for immigrants with advanced degrees or special skills.

Though their numbers have been increasing far faster than native born, Michigan, according to the study, has only about 650,000 foreign-born residents, less than seven percent of the state’s population. That’s barely half the national average.

That’s a far cry from nearly a century ago, when hundreds of thousands of immigrants poured in to work in the auto plants. Today, only Louisiana has a smaller percentage of residents born outside the United States.

But in Michigan, immigrants seem to “punch above their weight” indeed: Immigrants are “three times as likely as native-born Michiganders to start a new business.”  Their economic importance is even greater, when you consider the jobs of the future – those requiring “invention, innovation and technological change.”

The numbers seem to bear that out. According to Global Detroit, a non-profit, pro-immigrant corporation, immigrants own or co-own a staggering 76 percent of all patents issued to the state’s top research universities in recent years.  Immigrants, while less than seven percent of Michigan’s population, are 30 percent of the state’s doctors, 28 percent of software developers, and 22 percent of mechanical engineers.

This, Austin said, is largely a case of filling a void, not taking jobs away from Americans. Significantly, the study also found that 28 percent of “Main Street businesses” –those bigger than startups but smaller than corporate giants — are owned by immigrants – “and are responsible for all the new growth in these businesses within … Metro Detroit.” 

Not all immigrants are highly educated, of course. Interestingly, the Michigan Economic Center report also found that while immigrants are, “more likely than native-born Americans to be highly educated,” they are also more likely to have less than a high school degree.  But “research strongly indicates, however, that far from being an economic drain, these immigrants are important to many Michigan industries like agriculture.”  Though the report didn’t explicitly say so, there are some immigrants – migrant workers, those who clean up in restaurants – who do the work native-born Americans seldom want to do, often for very meager salaries.

But since Michigan has very few undocumented immigrants, why do the authors think President Trump’s policies, both real and threatened, are so dangerous here?

“The dynamic that made this state a powerhouse is now at risk,” Mr.  Austin said in an interview.  The report is explicit: “Donald Trump’s campaign for president fueled anti-immigrant sentiment,” which in turn is working to undo the collective economic dynamic that immigrants represent to and for the Michigan economy.”

Tobocman, who is Global Detroit’s director, said the president’s policies have a chilling effect even when it comes to attracting immigrants who are perfectly legal.

“Travel bans, immigration raids, walking back visa policies – all work together to freeze and ultimately reverse the flow of new people, new ideas, new entrepreneurial energy.”

That’s happening now, the report argues, and if it continues, Michigan’s economy may face disaster.

The report concludes by recommending that state, local and business officials go their own way and work together to make this the most welcoming state for new immigrants.  Despite, that is, whatever signals Washington may be sending. Purely as a business proposition, and regardless of sentiment, that might be the smartest thing this state could do.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

July 20, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Jul 21, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    Great statistics from our preeminent journalist. That old mumpsimus thing spreads like a dry grassfire though, the damage already done. Excerpts from Jack’s column would be dynamic billboard messages at appropriate locations. As to Herr Trump seeking to pardon himself, the inevitable is about to hit the fan.



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