Immigration and Michigan’s Economic Future

In writing the Global Detroit study, I had the opportunity to visit immigrant attraction and retention efforts in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, as well as meet with the director of efforts in Kitchener Waterloo—home of Research in Motion (RIM), the maker of the Blackberry. What I discovered is that business leaders, thought leaders, and diverse array of stakeholders are waking up to the opportunity that Rustbelt metro areas have in developing strategies that welcome immigrants and the international community.

Conor Williams recently wrote in the Washington Post, “Bottom line: The Midwest can’t survive without immigrants. The nation’s heartland can’t afford any more partisan gamesmanship on immigration policy. Millions of Midwestern jobs are at stake.”

This past week, I re-connected with Kauser Razvi (Kauser was a Michigan Neighborhood Americorps member at the Southwest Detroit Business Association a year after I had the position—which launched my entire career in community development and politics in Detroit 16 years ago) who is staffing the efforts in Cleveland. We discussed the need for social media to connect the diverse international populations within our metro areas.

Not only are these foreign born and ethnic populations starting businesses at high rates (including starting high-tech businesses in Michigan at six times the rate of non-immigrants), but they provide the foundation upon which Great Lakes metros can build their export economies and insure their businesses are globally connected and competitive.

The Great Lakes Chambers of Commerce and Great Lakes Manufacturing Councils have done superior (no pun intended) work in identifying a shared policy agenda among the large metro regions in the Great Lakes region. Included has been the need to attract high-skilled immigrants.

Next on the agenda ought to be the collaboration to implement on-the-ground strategies that will touch real people, businesses, and communities. Sharing web infrastructure to create local Welcome Mats, developing programmatic materials to retain international students who graduate from our Big Ten and other research universities, designing pathways that skilled immigrants can obtain professional licensing and secure their credentials, and tackling urban revitalization issues all are ripe for collaboration.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has thrown down the gauntlet in his first State of the State address last month stating that, “Immigration made us a great state and country. It is time we embrace this concept again as a way to speed our reinvention.” He could have added a “great region” to the list. I hope that the coming years prove that to be true.

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