The Role of Immigrants in Reviving the Great Lakes Region

New American Economy and Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition Release Important Research on The Role of Immigrants in Reviving the Great Lakes Region

2017 has been a difficult year. Much of the year has been spent listening to endless analyses and prognostications about how angry working-class voters swung the 2016 election in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Candidate Donald Trump launched his candidacy with racist stereotypes directed towards Mexican immigrants and doubled-down on a “Muslim ban” midway through the campaign.

The 5th Welcoming Economies Global (WE Global) Network convening in Syracuse provided a tremendous counterpoint. With some 300 attendees, the convening reminded us that pragmatic leaders across the Rust Belt are forging ahead with local initiatives that welcome immigrants and refugees and focus on building regional growth and prosperity through their inclusion.

A highlight of that counterpoint was the critically important research released by the New American Economy and the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition at the WE Global Convening that provides an in-depth look at the impacts that immigrants have on working-class jobs and wages. The research affirms the anger that working-class voters feel, but provides detailed and exhaustive evidence that immigrants are a critical part of the solution to job loss and falling wages experienced by the Rust Belt’s working-class.

First, the report makes clear that working-class frustrations and fears about the Rust Belt economy are justified. According to the report, the Great Lakes region (roughly defined by upstate NY, PA, OH, MI, IN, IL, and WI, but more precisely defined by the metro and rural areas that touch those states) lost 1 million working-class jobs between 2000-2015 and saw real wages for working-class workers fall 6.4% over this period.

The report focuses on how growing immigrant populations in the Great Lakes region actually contribute to overall economic growth and activity, fill critical workforce needs, and actually are playing important roles to revitalize manufacturing, health care, and agriculture in ways that directly create jobs and raise wages for the region’s working-class. Moreover, immigrant entrepreneurs are creating Main Street service industry jobs, as well as high-tech firms at stunning rates.

Detroit, the work of Global Detroit, and supporters of Global Detroit are heavily featured throughout the report. The report profiles Global Detroit’s international student retention program, as well as the ProsperUS Detroit micro-enterprise program. It also profiles former Global Detroit board member Tel Ganesan and his IT and engineering staffing firm, as well as Basil Bacall and his hospitality business.

But mostly the report is a statistical and economic analysis of how immigrants in our region are contributing to the economic well-being of U.S.-born working-class families.

Let’s start with the larger demographic insights. Metro Detroit lost 220,000 U.S.-born residents (5% loss) between 2000-2015, while the immigrant population grew by 80,000 during that time (24% growth), helping to stave off that loss. In fact, from 2000-2015 the Great Lakes region grew at a rate one-fourth of the national population (4.3% versus 14.2%), but immigrants accounted for half of that growth (with 1.5 million new immigrants to the Great Lakes region). The number of U.S.-born homeowners in the Great Lakes region fell 0.6% from 2000-2015, the number of immigrant homeowners in the region grew 36.5% during this period.

Immigrants are providing an important counterbalance to our region’s rapidly aging population. Across the Great Lakes, the number of senior citizens grew 21.2%, or 2 million residents, from 2000-2015. While only 51.1% of the region’s U.S.-born population is working aged (25-64), 70% of its immigrant population is working aged. Moreover, immigrants are an incredible source of young talent. From 2014-15 alone, the Great Lakes region lost 74,000 college-educated U.S.-born Millennials (aged 22-34), but gained 18,000 college-educated immigrant Millennials.

Beyond these larger and important demographic patterns, however, the report details the ways in which immigrants are creating working-class jobs in key sectors of the Great Lakes economy, rather than taking jobs from the U.S.-born. In both health care (where 80% of all the net new jobs were created in the Great Lakes region between 2000-2015) and manufacturing (the historic foundation of the regional economy), immigrant workers are helping fill critical skill shortages both in STEM and other areas requiring technical skill that are enabling Great Lakes companies and industries compete, expand, and invest in ways that are creating tens of thousands of working-class jobs.

The report also delves into the importance of immigrant entrepreneurs. In addition to featuring the hundreds of jobs created by Tel Ganesan and Basil Bacall, as well as Albert Yousif’s, an Iraqi immigrant, janitorial company, the report reveals that 1 out of every 3 Main Street businesses in Metro Detroit in 2015 was owned by an immigrant in 2015 (at a time that immigrants comprised roughly 9% of the metro population). From 2000-2015 the number of U.S.-born entrepreneurs in Metro Detroit fell by 8.5%, while the number of foreign-born entrepreneurs increased by 38.1%.

NAE and the Great Lakes Metro Chambers research helps to understand that working-class voters are understandably concerned about the economic changes that have been afoot for the last 15 years. Massive job loss and the decline in real wages affirm their anger. Yet, the belief the immigrants are to blame is misguided. The report compliments the work of governors like Rick Snyder, mayors like Mike Duggan, county executives like Mark Hackel, and nonprofit economic development initiatives like Global Detroit for recognizing these realities and suggest they give us a competitive economic advantage:

Indeed, many government and business leaders in the Great Lakes region, including local chambers of commerce, economic development agencies, nonprofit leaders, mayors, and governors, fully recognize that immigrants represent a lifeline for their communities, rather than a drain on them. Such leaders have launched more than 20 local economic development programs specifically designed to welcome, retain, and integrate immigrants into both urban revitalization and economic growth efforts. This is being done largely through the Welcoming Economies Global Network, a program of Welcoming America run in partnership with Global Detroit. Such efforts have put the Great Lakes region far ahead of other parts of the country and made it a powerful example.


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