Motown, the city that set the world on wheels, now wants the world to consider calling it home.
“Immigrants: come. You’re welcome here.’’ That’s the message at the heart of a new effort by policy leaders to roll out a global welcome mat to immigrants, particularly foreign-born students.
They paint a picture of a future Detroit where some of the more than 31,000 currently vacant homes are returned to stability by immigrants, foreign-born students and entrepreneurs with business acumen strong enough to help reverse the economic decline. Immigration, leaders say, equals solutions.
“Immigrants bring jobs,’’ said Gov. Rick Snyder last week during the New Michigan Media conference on Immigration and Michigan’s Economic Future in Detroit. “Make no mistake: they are job creators, and we should be embracing that.’’
The July conference marked the first major embrace of immigration as a new economic development strategy. It drew support via video hookup from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has become a sort of de-facto champion of Detroit’s push to attract more immigrants.
In May on NBC's "Meet the Press," Bloomberg suggested that the U.S. government should consider allowing anyone to immigrate into the U.S. in exchange for a commitment to live in Detroit for a certain length of time, say five or 10 years. Bloomberg’s theory is that immigrants could help repopulate Detroit and ignite its economy through job growth.
During the conference Mayor Bloomberg urged city leaders not to be dissuaded by the failure of federal immigration reform efforts. Instead he urged Detroit to vie for immigrants living in states that are pressing for anti-immigrations laws. "I'd go as fast as I could to recruit immigrants who are already here."
Policy leaders say the region’s newfound focus on immigration as an innovation tool is buoyed by far more than Bloomberg’s support.
They point to statistics from a groundbreaking report called Global Detroit, commissioned by the New Economy Initiative, a collaborative of 10 regional and national top foundations. The study was the first-in-depth measure of immigrants’ impact in Michigan and Metro Detroit, particularly high-skilled workers and foreign-born students.
According to the report Michigan has the third highest percentage of foreign-born residents in the Great Lakes, following Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul. And those residents are 56 percent more likely to have graduated college than other Michigan residents. They also represent 44 percent of the state’s engineering masters degrees and 62 percent of the engineering PhD students. Of course, many of these students eventually make move on.
“There is a river of talent flowing through our soil,’’ said Steve Tobocman, a former state representative and head of the Global Detroit study. “The question is are we going to divert that river to fertilize our economy."
Tobocman points to two statistics as drivers for the recruitment and retention of foreign talent: immigrant entrepreneurs contributed $1.5 billion into Michigan’s economy during 1996-2007. Also, immigrants started a full third of all the high-tech firms created in the state, ranking Michigan third among states where immigrants have started high-tech firms.
None of these statistics add up to a silver economic bullet for Detroit’s battered economy. But they at least point to the value of sounding a more strategic global call. As Tobocman puts it, the world needs to know, “Detroit and Michigan are open for business.’’