Adonis Flores’s father brought him from their hometown in Mexico to Detroit when he was 8 years old in 1997 to join his mother, who had been working in Michigan for more than a year. Even then, he knew he was undocumented.
“We knew that life was going to be difficult, but at least we were going to be together,” he said.
But after making Detroit home, his father had to leave the country in the 2000s when a federal program made it harder for unauthorized immigrants to get work, and Adonis’s brother was deported in 2017. Flores remained, earning a degree from Wayne State University, becoming a legal permanent resident when he got married and working as an immigrant rights coordinator.
“It was sad to see my family eventually be split by our immigration systems,” said Flores, who recently saw his father for the first time in 10 years. “It’s one of the reasons why I do this work. I think that the immigration system that we have is hurting families.”
Flores is one of more than 700,000 people born outside the United States who now live in Michigan, including an estimated 129,000 undocumented people. In the nearly four years since Donald Trump became president, the landscape of immigration has changed in Michigan — more undocumented immigrants have been detained than in recent years; refugee resettlement has plunged to its lowest levels in more than a decade; and the influx of international students and workers has slowed, which some say is a natural economic trend and others have blamed on Trump’s rhetoric.
Democratic presidential candidates competing in Michigan’s March 10 primary are promising major changes to immigration, reversals of Trump’s policies that restricted legal immigration and increases in access to citizenship for undocumented migrants.
Elizabeth Warren, shown at a fall rally in New York, pledges to decriminalize border crossings. (Photo by David Garcia / Shutterstock.com)
Democrats also want to create a path to citizenship for undocumented people and expand the number of refugees allowed into the United States.
But the candidates differ on other key issues: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts pledge to decriminalize border crossings. Sanders would pause all deportations and eliminate the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol while opponents would focus on select groups and redistributing or reforming the enforcement bodies’ powers. Most want to reform the visa system, but former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden have specified plans to make visas more responsive to economic needs.
While Michigan doesn’t host nearly the number of undocumented people as states like California or Texas, more liberal migration policies could provide more stability for the state’s immigrant communities and impact the state’s economy, experts told Bridge Magazine.
Immigration has changed under Trump
Legal immigration into the United States has dropped slightly since Trump took office, but it has largely stayed on par with trends for 20 years. That’s because, for large swaths of immigrant groups, the United States restricts the number of immigrants by country of origin.
In Michigan, the population of foreign-born residents has grown 34 percent since 2000 to about 700,000, while U.S.-born residents dropped about 2 percent.
And overall, deportations have dropped from an average of 343,504 per year under President Barack Obama to 225,815 per year under Trump nationwide and from 733 to 547 annually on average in Michigan. The decline follows steady decreases in deportations since the Clinton administration.
But Trump has dramatically restricted the number of refugees allowed into the country every year. As of October, the United States had admitted 76,200 refugees under the Trump administration — compared with the nearly 85,000 refugees allowed in fiscal year 2016 alone under the Obama administration.Obama implemented an immigration enforcement policy that prioritized deportations of unauthorized migrants who posed a national security or criminal threat and who recently entered the country. Trump broadened that by implementing a policy of “zero tolerance” for people who attempt to enter the country illegally and promising mass deportations of unauthorized immigrants regardless of their threat level.
As of October, the United States had admitted 76,200 refugees under the Trump administration — compared with the nearly 85,000 refugees allowed in fiscal year 2016 alone under the Obama administration. (Photo by Stephanie Kenner / Shutterstock)
Less aggressive deportation
Due to Trump administration policies, all of Michigan’s estimated 129,000 undocumented immigrants are vulnerable to deportation. Michigan has the 16th highest number of undocumented immigrants of any state.
In the past, deportation has primarily occurred when an unauthorized immigrant is arrested for another crime and passed to immigration authorities. But the Trump administration’s plan to target all undocumented people has meant stepped-up enforcement of “community arrests,” when ICE arrests people they find in the community.
For Michigan, that has made a big difference. According to a 2019 report from Syracuse University, Michigan had the second-highest rate of community-based arrests of any state.
One example was the arrests of 250 undocumented students at a fake university in Farmington last year, created by ICE as a sting operation.
As of April 2019, 64 percent of immigrants detained by ICE had no criminal conviction, compared with 39 percent in 2015.
Most of the presidential candidates have pledged to change the way unauthorized immigrants are arrested and prosecuted.
Buttigieg would return to the Obama-era strategy of focusing on recent border crossers, convicted criminals and people who pose a threat to national security. Bloomberg and Warren have called for a more narrow focus: Only criminals and security threats. Sanders has pledged to pause all deportations “until a thorough audit of past practices and policies is complete.”
But the biggest problem for undocumented people in Michigan now, many experts said, is that there’s simply no option for most people to “get in line” to apply for citizenship without leaving the country.
“There’s nothing you can apply for, there is no way forward,” said Susan Reed, managing attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.
Now, most people who want to apply for green cards must leave the country to do so. But once they do, federal law bars them from re-entering the country, usually for 10 years.
And due to stringent per-country caps, they often face waits much longer than that to rejoin family members, “and in some cases, they don’t have an option” and are permanently barred from the country, Flores said.
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is the only Democratic presidential candidate who doesn't back creating an option for undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship and the only who hasn't pledged to end Trump's travel ban. (Photo by Rich Koele / Shutterstock.com)
All of the Democratic presidential candidates except Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard have said they would support creating an option for undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship. Warren, Sanders and Bloomberg said they’d repeal the 3- and 10-year bars on re-entry to the United States as a part of their proposal.
A return to pre-Trump-era refugee admissions
Mirroring the national trend, the number of refugees resettled in Michigan has dropped precipitously over the last few years, reaching the lowest point in more than a decade in 2018 to 651 people.
Still, Michigan is one of the major destinations of refugees in America with the 10th highest rate of refugee resettlement among states in 2019.
“We have people coming into our states that are trying to escape governments that are violating human rights, where their families have been killed, or they’re worried about their survival and their family’s survival,” said Gilda Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Public Policy, a progressive think tank.
“Refugee settlement is part of the fabric of our country and our state.”
Worldwide, there are more people displaced from their home country due to violence and persecution than any time in the last 70 years — 70 million people — according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Michigan takes in large numbers of refugees from Iraq and Syria, 2,103 and 325 people annually on average respectively between 2010 and 2016. The state is home to the world’s largest population of Chaldeans outside of Iraq. Those numbers have dropped to just 157 Iraqis and 116 Syrians annually on average since Trump took office.
Trump introduced a “travel ban” prohibiting people from Muslim-majority countries Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen during his first week in office. Due to challenges in federal court, it’s changed over time and now blocks immigration from most people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania.
In order to get off the banned list, Iraq agreed to take deportees from the United States, opening up mass deportations of Chaldeans from the Detroit area back to the country where Christians are facing violent persecution.
Now, people fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo make up the lion's share of refugees settling in Michigan.
“I'm a firm believer that a very robust immigration system is really good for the economy,” said Steve Tobocman of Global Detroit. “Especially for a state like Michigan that is an agricultural state, has inner cities that have seen huge depopulation, that is in desperate need for high skill talent and is rapidly aging — immigration is the perfect fit for our economic woes.”
Besides anxiety, fluctuating refugee policies could have an economic impact, said Steve Tobocman, executive director of Global Detroit, an economic development nonprofit. His group and the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy released a report in 2017 showing that refugees in southeast Michigan contribute up to $295 million to the regional economy.
All of the Democratic presidential candidates except Gabbard have pledged to end Trump’s travel ban, and all have pledged to return the number of refugees admitted to the United States to at least 125,000 annually (compared with the 18,000 refugees allowed in 2020).
“Reducing refugee admissions has really damaged the whole support and resettlement framework and network,” said Reed of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.
“Michigan's refugee communities are such a vibrant part of Michigan, socially, culturally and economically.”
Wider visa options
Nearly all of the Democratic presidential candidates have proposed a way to get more people into the country by changing the visa system (which would require legislative change).
Because of the per-country caps, many people who would otherwise be eligible for visas wait years to join family members in the United States.
Warren, Sanders and Bloomberg would expand the number of visas accessible to relatives of those already in the United States, and Biden would allow for more temporary visas while those family members are awaiting permanent ones.
Michigan faces a major labor shortage and candidates say they want to change the visa system more responsive to changing economic needs.
“Our numbers are set in statute and they’ve been that way for decades and decades, which means our employment-based system doesn’t change with our country’s needs,” said Sarah Pierce, immigration policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
She praised Buttigieg’s plan, which would create a commission responsible for adjusting the numbers of work visas available depending on economic demands.
Biden and Bloomberg would also allow for visa numbers to adjust to economic needs, and would allow local governments to petition the federal government for more visa authorizations to meet demands.
As immigration to Michigan has slowed and rates of deportation have increased, it’s “costing our economy in a myriad of ways,” said Tobocman.
“I'm a firm believer that a very robust immigration system is really good for the economy,” Tobocman said. “Especially for a state like Michigan that is an agricultural state, has inner cities that have seen huge depopulation, that is in desperate need for high skill talent and is rapidly aging — immigration is the perfect fit for our economic woes.”
Research indicates that immigration has an overall positive effect on the American economy: Immigrants increase output and innovation in the economy, contribute more in taxes than their native-born counterparts, and are less likely to commit crimes or go to jail than people born in the United States.
But more immigration to Michigan would mean a tougher time for low-skill workers already living here, increasing demand and lowering wages.
“There’s broad agreement that immigration of any sort is good for a country and expands that country’s economy,” Pierce said. But “lower-paid workers are harmed, their job prospects or their wages decrease in the short term.”