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The truth about immigrants in Michigan

Elizalde Ramirez Vasquez - a migrant worker who attended Michigan State University.
courtesy photo
Elizalde Ramirez Vasquez - a migrant worker who attended Michigan State University.

The last few decades haven’t been kind to Michigan. Traditional manufacturing jobs have disappeared or gone abroad or to the Sunbelt.

Per capita income has fallen dramatically, to the point where two-thirds of the states are wealthier than we are. We were the only state to lose population in the first decade of this century.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

While Michigan seems to be slowly growing again, the population increase is far smaller than average. We’ve lost five seats in Congress since 1980, and may lose another.

But there’s one huge bright spot that has saved our state from losing even more people, and has been responsible for much of what jobs have been created.

This is a group that has the potential to transform Michigan into an economic powerhouse again. Unfortunately, they are now under attack, a development that has huge and threatening implications for Michigan’s future.

I am talking about immigrants.

Despite the myths and blatant lies, they create jobs, rather than take them. They are a disproportionate share of entrepreneurs, are far better educated than the native-born, and are responsible for whatever population growth we’ve had. The vast majority of immigrants are legal, and we could use a lot more of them.

But don’t take my word for it.

Whatever your politics, the report offers plenty of documented evidence that immigrants are driving whatever economic progress we're having.

The Ann Arbor-based Michigan Economic Center released a new study Thursday morning, Michigan: We Are All Migrants Here, which provides loads of evidence that immigration is the best thing that ever happened to this state. The center was created by John Austin, the former chair of the state board of education.

Austin, the report’s main author, is a Democrat, as is one of the report’s other co-authors, former state representative Steve Tobocman, who now runs an urban non-profit corporation called Global Detroit.

While this is not meant as a partisan document, it does offer a clear political conclusion. As its subtitle says, our “immigrant engine of economic growth” is clearly threatened by the economic policies of the Trump Administration.

Whatever your politics, the report offers plenty of documented evidence that immigrants are driving whatever economic progress we’re having. These days, we don’t often think of Michigan as a state powered by immigration. According to the authors, Michigan has the second-smallest percentage of foreign-born population of any state.

But nevertheless, over the last 15 years, our foreign-born population has grown by nearly 25%, while the number of native-born has actually declined. “We depend on them to rebuild communities, start new businesses, and put people to work,” Tobocman said of immigrants.

They’ve been doing that. The foreign-born are less than 7% of the population, but are responsible for a quarter of all the high-tech startups in the state, and create a quarter or more of the new software and engineering jobs.

Governor Rick Snyder gets this.

He attempted, unsuccessfully, to get the federal government to give Michigan a huge number of visas for technologically skilled immigrants he wanted to attract to Detroit.

Now, things are worse. As the report details, things like the new Administration’s attempted travel ban has had a chilling effect on legal immigrants and our economy.

The full report is well-written and not long; you can easily find it online. The bottom line is that Washington is now pushing policies that seem certain to ruin our state further, and that’s something you should know.

*Correction - an earlier version of this commentary said "Ninety-nine percent" of immigrants "are fully legal." That number is not correct. The copy has been changed above. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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