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Opinion | It’s the economy stupid! Immigration boosts Michigan prosperity

Michigan’s shared prosperity and economic future are in real jeopardy. 

Recent Census data updates covering population growth and decline between July 1, 2021 and July 1, 2022 reveal that Michigan had more deaths (118,000) than births (105,000) for the second year in a row. But lest you think that COVID is the sole cause of our population decline, the 13,000 net population loss from deaths minus births was amplified by another 8,500 net population loss from domestic migration (number of residents leaving Michigan versus those moving into the state).

Steve Tobocman and Alaina Jackson photos

Steve Tobocman is executive director of Global Detroit and has long been involved in immigration economic development initiatives. Alaina Jackson is managing director of Global Detroit and has decades of experience working with historically disenfranchised communities and promoting economic development. 

For more than a year, Michigan employers have been emphasizing the need for more workers and more talent as the single biggest impediment to their growth, competitiveness and ability to stay in business. And that problem is only going to get worse with these demographic trends. But it’s not just the labor force that is hurt by depopulation. Less population means less consumers, less spending, less tax dollars. It’s a vicious and seemingly endless cycle.

Michiganders need only look at the last half century of population loss to Michigan’s central cities (Detroit is less than 35 percent of its peak population; Flint about 40 percent; Saginaw less than 45 percent) and its rural communities (Gogebic County in the Upper Peninsula is less than 45 percent its population peak) to understand the broad-ranging impacts of population loss on property values, tax base, retail offerings and community. 

As residents dwindle in these communities, retailers struggle to meet the bottom line; homes are abandoned; tax base dwindles; parks, roads and infrastructure are left to crumble.

We see the resulting decay all around us. Once vibrant urban neighborhoods are now characterized by abandonment and blight. Schools have to shut down for lack of students to fill them. Virtually every Michigander is so familiar with the story that it barely tweaks our attention. So important is population growth that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan clearly stated in his first term that the city’s population should be the single most important metric to gauge his administration’s success.

Thankfully, immigration is offering states like Michigan and its Midwest neighbors new hope. 

In 2010 with the backing of the New Economy Initiative, Detroit Regional Chamber and Skillman Foundation, a research and planning process was launched that led to the creation of Global Detroit, now a nationally recognized leader in the emerging field of immigrant economic development. Scores of Midwest communities like ours have come to the realization that immigration is more than a political, civil rights or social justice issue. It’s a community issue that is inextricably linked to our economic well-being and future. A decade ago, the original Global Detroit study noted: 

The incredibly important role that Detroit played to the nation’s innovation, industrial might, and economic prosperity in the 20th Century has been compared to the role that Silicon Valley has played in modern times. The innovative and entrepreneurial spirit embodied by Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, the Dodge Brothers, and dozens of other auto, engineering, science, and industrial leaders fueled Detroit’s emergence as the “Arsenal of Democracy.” At the time, 33.8 percent of Detroit’s population was foreign born. That entrepreneurial spirit drove America to become the world’s unrivaled industrial leader.

The reality is that immigrants are helping to sustain Michigan’s economic future. While only seven percent of the state’s population, immigrants represent all of Michigan’s net population growth over the last 30+ years having grown 96 percent over that span. 

The current Census numbers documenting the year’s population loss from deaths over births (-13,500) and domestic outmigration (-8,500) also document strong international migration that nearly offset all the loss (Michigan gained 18,812 immigrants during the year). Similar patterns were experienced in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In 2021, Global Detroit released an innovative research study funded by the Hudson Webber Foundation and conducted in partnership with national researcher Alan Mallach and Data Driven Detroit. The Building Inclusive Cities report was likely the first study ever conducted to look at the impacts of immigration on urban neighborhoods and long-term residents. 

Looking at Detroit’s Banglatown East Davison Village and Chadsey Condon neighborhood, the research documented that relatively rapid immigration to these neighborhoods reversed population decline with little, if any, displacement of long-term population; decreased vacancy, blight and crime; and increased property values, retail opportunities and bolstered people’s views about their neighborhood and its future. 

The reality is that no major U.S. city has reversed decades of population loss without substantial immigration growth.

At times it feels as if state and local leaders, economic development agencies, business and community leaders understand very little about immigration, thinking it solely a national political issue, humanitarian challenge or domestic threat when, in fact, it is an integral part of our history, our community, our economy and our future. 

Over the last decade, Michigan has been a top recipient of refugees — those fleeing war, natural disaster or political, social and/or religious persecution. And more than 50 percent of adult immigrant arrivals to the state over this same decade have possessed a four-year college degree and/or graduate degree — a rate nearly twice as high as the state’s college attainment rate. 

While metro Detroit is home to the second largest Middle Eastern population outside the Middle East (after the Los Angeles metro), India is the single largest country of birth of the metro area’s immigrant community, a fact that surprises even most urban planners and regional demographers.

For more than a decade, Michigan has quietly been building infrastructure to welcome immigrants, build stronger social cohesion between immigrants and their neighbors and develop specific economic development programs, practices and policies that better include our state’s and region’s foreign-born communities in ways that will accelerate our shared prosperity, creating more jobs for everyone and ensuring the state can build the kind of middle-class wealth that once provided Michiganders the highest standard of living anywhere in the world.

The recent Census is evidence that our work is producing results and that we are indeed on the right path. The question is whether all the population doom-and-gloom research and those eager to react to its very real warning signs will embrace the immigration bright spots in the data and invest resources in what has been our state’s and the Midwest’s most important solution.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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