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Detroit needs more immigrants

Every year when I celebrate the 4th of July, I pause to reflect upon my grandfather, Morris Tobocman, who came to the United States in the early 20th Century. He came for opportunity and for freedom.  As a Jew in Eastern Europe he had little formal education and little economic opportunity.  He saw America as a place where his dreams and hopes could be realized.

Today, too many Michiganders and Detroiters have difficulty seeing the economic opportunity when they celebrate the nation’s birthday.  Instead, they reflect upon a decade where Michigan’s per capita income fell from 17th to 39th in the country and where 800,000 jobs (more than 20 percent of all jobs) were lost in our state.  The 2010 Census showed Michigan to be the only state to have lost population and the devastating population loss in Detroit of 250,000 residents or 25 percent of the population foreshadowed the City’s bankruptcy.

Global Detroit was conceived amidst the end of that decade of decline.  It mapped out a bold future and robust future for Detroit and the region that embraced immigration and international talent.  While the nearly $7 million of investments in strategies recommended by the Global Detroit report is laying the foundation for that prosperous future, there are some legal changes that could grow the regional economy without costing a dime.

Earlier this month, Global Detroit joined with Governor Snyder’s Office for New Americans, the Detroit Regional Chamber, MichBio, the Michigan Manufacturers Association, and the Michigan Farm Bureau to host a Michigan event for the National Day of Action, encouraging our federal government to move forward on immigration reform.  The even highlighted the economic opportunities that Detroit, Metro Detroit, and Michigan could access with a more sensible immigration policy.

Last month, the Partnership for a New American Economy—a collection of forward-thinking mayors and CEOs who embrace comprehensive immigration reform—issued yet another study on the contributions of immigrants and the costs of a broken federal immigration system.  What was surprising about the “Closing Economic Windows:  How H-1B Visa Denials Cost U.S. Born Tech Worker Jobs and Wages During the Great Recession,” was that Metro Detroit ranks fourth in the nation among metropolitan areas who lost U.S.-born worker jobs because of restrictive immigration laws.

With an annual average of 5,300 H-1B applications denied for the years 2007-08, Metro Detroit’s computer industry suffered significantly slower growth than would have happened had those positions been filled.  The computer industry employment would have grown 13.3% per year if all H-1B applications for 2007-08 had been granted and 26.6% over the two-year period.

The report used several econometric models, all of which indicated that cities that had larger H-1B shocks experienced slower growth in the number of jobs available for U.S.-born computer workers—both high- and low-skilled—in the years that followed.  Based upon the models, the 2007-08 H-1B denials for Metro Detroit caused between 3,500 and 15,000 jobs of U.S.-born computer industry workers and a loss of wages to U.S.-born computer industry workers of some $44 million to $135 million.

The situation is not improving.  In 2014, federal immigration officials received a record 172,000 H-1B applications within the first five days of the April 1 application period opening up.  With only 65,000 such visas to grant, less than 40 percent of the applicants will be granted after a random lottery.

American prosperity has been built upon the appeal to the world’s most talented and most industrious who seek freedom and opportunity.  New research is providing insights that robust immigration does not just benefit immigrants, but creates an environment that benefits U.S.-born workers and families as well.  Detroit is the 18th largest city in America, but has the 138th largest foreign-born population.  If it simply could hold its own in attracting immigrants, it would have nearly 110,000 additional residents.  Detroit families who have suffered from abandoned houses, blight, closing schools, failing commercial establishments, and lower tax base would benefit from this incredible injection of human capital.

As we celebrate our nation’s independence, let us not forget what made us the most prosperous nation on earth.  Let’s embrace the ideals that made us great.  And let us consider how we can build upon those fundamentals to restore prosperity to our city, metro area, and state.

Steve Tobocman
Steve Tobocman has spent the past three years spearheading Global Detroit, a regional economic revitalization strategy for the Detroit area focused on immigration and global connections. Steve is the Managing Partner of New Solutions Group, a mission-driven consulting firm that develops smart, innovative, and collaborative solutions that often challenge old paradigms that often restrain success and opportunity. From 2003-2008, Steve served as the State Representative from Michigan 12th State House District in southwestern Detroit, one of the state’s largest immigrant communities. In his last term, Steve served as the Majority Floor Leader, the second-ranking position in the House. During his time in the Michigan Legislature, Steve spearheaded efforts to protect immigrants from predatory immigrant service providers and wrote one of the nation’s strong consumer protection laws for immigrants, the Michigan Immigration Clerical Act. He also championed a variety of community economic development policies. Currently, Steve also splits his time with Global Detroit by co-directing the Michigan Political Leadership Program at Michigan State University, as well as the Michigan Foreclosure Task Force, a 200-member organization that works to fight the foreclosure crisis in Michigan. He also has served as the Interim Director for the Community Development Advocates of Detroit, the Detroit trade association for community development. Follow him @GlobalDET.