Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, is upset about the number of immigrants in his state—in his estimation there are far too few of them. In contrast with Republican politicians who want to rein in president Obama’s executive actions on immigration, the governor asked the Obama Administration early last year to use its executive powers to designate 50,000 extra visas to the Detroit metro area for high-skilled immigrants. Citing population loss and the need to jumpstart the Motor City economically (Detroit had just filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy), Snyder—a former CEO for Gateway Computer and head of a venture capitalist firm—called on his state to “embrace immigration.”
Those calls have gotten softer in recent months as the nativist rhetoric emanating from Republican candidates for president has gotten louder. But the issue can’t be ignored entirely. As Europe deals with 4 million Syrian refugees and the Obama administration pledges to admit more of these migrants, the logic of encouraging immigration to Detroit—with its large, welcoming ethnically Middle Eastern population—is only getting stronger. Germany has been quite candid about one of the reasons it is accepting a large portion of the Syrians: it has an aging population and needs younger workers to help pay into the system that will support their baby boomers in retirement. Germany, in effect, has merged humanitarian goals with economic needs. Detroit is well suited to doing the same.
One would think that there might be some movement to alleviate Detroit’s depopulation and Syria’s humanitarian crisis with a single executive order. But during this election year, with Donald Trump at the forefront, the issue of immigration reform has been narrowed to how ranchers in Southern Arizona feel about migrants, not how a Midwest city looking to climb out of a hole that has been getting deeper for more than 50 years sees them, which could cause conflict between Republicans in the Midwest and Republican presidential candidates in the months to come.
All of which has some Republicans in Michigan scratching their heads about why the national conservative discussion on immigration is being forced on Michigan. “We have a city like Detroit that needs human capital, we have agricultural interests that need people to harvest their crops and we have the largest Arab community in the country,” says Republican attorney Richard McLellan, who served in the Ford administration, both Bush administrations, and worked for Michigan Republican governors Michael Milliken and John Engler. “From my perspective, anti-immigrant issues don’t really exist very much in Michigan.”
The Midwest’s relative lack of animosity towards immigrants is what made Snyder’s plan politically palatable in the first place. Detroit had lost more than 1 million people since 1950, and the city now has an estimated 80,000 abandoned buildings. So the plan was to dole out the visas over five years to high-skilled immigrants in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)—and require them to live in Detroit for a prescribed period of time. More foreigners moving in would mean more job creation, a much-needed economic stimulus for a city where nearly 60 percent of children live in households under the poverty line.
“Isn’t this a great way that doesn’t involve large-scale financial contributions from the federal government to do something dramatic in Detroit?” Snyder asked rhetorically when he announced the proposal in January of 2014. He implored the audience to “think about how dumb our current system is for immigration in this country.”
“When I talk about dumb, the dumbest of the dumb is the part we’re focused in on,” Snyder explains on his state website. “Currently, we have thousands and thousands of foreign nationals coming to get advanced degrees in our universities. In Michigan, it’s about over 1,800 Ph.D. and master’s students a year in STEM [that graduate] … and many of these kids, when they’re done, we just tell them to get out. That’s just plain dumb, because shouldn’t we want to keep them here after we’ve given them a world-class education?”
Some conservatives have howled at the idea. “It is beyond belief that Snyder asked how dumb it is to not give work visas to 50,000 foreign citizens when tens of millions of American workers have lost their jobs and their careers and have given up looking for work,” conservative blogger Michael Cutler, a former Immigration and Naturalization Service agent, wrote in May. “What is truly dumb, and in fact duplicitous, is Snyder’s idea that the solution to high unemployment … is to import foreign workers and provide them with opportunities while blithely ignoring his fellow Americans who did perhaps demonstrate that they were dumb by voting for him in the first place.”
But the blowback in Michigan was much more tepid. In fact, it hardly registered. Michigan’s Republican-dominated legislature backed the idea, as did Detroit’s Democratic Mayor Michael Duggan, along with conservative business groups and immigrant rights organizations. The warm reception Snyder’s proposal received in his home state is indicative of how the highest priorities in the Rust Belt are generally job growth and attracting new residents (cities like Pittsburgh, Columbus, Dayton and Indianapolis have very pro-active immigrant “welcoming” programs), not anchor babies and building walls.
Despite their former enthusiasm for the plan, neither Snyder nor Duggan would be interviewed for this story and Republican state senators and representatives who backed the plan claimed they were too busy to talk (a few offered to discuss road construction, however.) With the presidential election underway, and some mentioning Snyder as a possible vice presidential candidate, the Republican governor has stayed away from discussing the 50,000 visa number specifically this year, despite recent calls within metro Detroit’s huge Middle Eastern community to use the 50,000 proposed visas to bring Syrian refugees to Michigan.
Political observers in Michigan who didn’t want their names used theorized that Snyder is keeping the immigration issue quiet in the state because he favors Republicans like Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich who, like him, are relatively moderate on immigration. Though Snyder has not publicly backed either candidate, making immigration front and center could help Trump and other more anti-immigration presidential contenders in the Michigan primary on March 8. Kasich, in particular, has been very moderate in Ohio regarding immigration reform and a path to citizenship. Like Snyder, he sees immigration more as a tool for economic growth and less as an act of social justice.
Snyder is also likely positioning himself to be an attractive vice-presidential candidate, “and you don’t get named to that if you take a controversial position on such a hot button issue,” says a former Michigan state representative who is now a lobbyist in Lansing. “It was OK to talk about this last year, but not so good this year.”
Those political realties perhaps explain the vagueness of his responses to basic questions about his immigration plan and Detroit’s role in the current refugee crisis.
“Gov. Snyder has long said that our national immigration system is in need of reform and has called for our leaders at the federal level to continue working on this important issue,” David Murray, Gov. Snyder’s deputy press secretary, wrote in an email. “Michigan has always embraced the cultural diversity and ingenuity that our immigrants have throughout their history and can continue to bring under a bipartisan system that addresses our national interests and moves our state and country forward.”
“We knew this proposal would take some time, and we continue to be optimistic as we move forward,” Murray added.
The Obama Administration has never said publically whether it supports or opposes Snyder’s plan. The biggest difficulty would be geographically appropriating the 50,000 visas for Detroit. This has been done in some other countries (Canada, for example), but never in the United States. Secretary of State John Kerry said recently the United States would increase the number of refugees accepted by the United States from the current 70,000 to 85,000 in 2016, and up to 100,000 in 2017, for a total increase of 45,000 over the next two years.
Local willingness to accept refugees (sponsorship by churches, for example) usually plays a role when deciding where to send them but Snyder (through his spokesman) was very reticent about steering a certain number of the 45,000 extra refugees into southeastern Michigan. “Gov. Snyder believes Michigan should be a welcoming state, and we accept about 4,400 refugees a year,” Murray wrote. “But that number, and that process, is determined by the federal government. We always are open to working with the federal government on this issue.”
For McLellan, the Republican lawyer, not moving to take a large number of the Syrian refugees may be a missed opportunity for the state.
“I talk to all of the right winger nuts and get them on my Facebook page, because I am one of them,” McLellan laughs. “But I don’t see any anti-Muslim racist stuff. And part of that is because of our history with immigration. We are getting older and poorer and less educated—those are basic facts—and we need to bring in new blood, do what we did more than 100 years ago to rebuild this state. If we don’t get new blood in Michigan, we will have more serious problems down the road.”
“The conservative legislators are always looking for an enemy, and it is great if it is outside their district,” McLellan says. “In this case, the enemy is sometimes outside their Michigan district in southern Arizona. But most of the people in this state don’t feel strongly about immigration, either way. Because they know people who are, but more importantly, they come from that themselves. The hatred just isn’t here like some of the Republican presidential candidates are playing it out to be.”
It is immediately clear when driving through Dearborn, Michigan why this area is commonly referred to as the “Arab Capital of North America.” On Warren Avenue and Ford Road, among the hookah dens and bakeries with an endless supply of pita bread choices, are buildings with signage in both English and Arabic script that advertise the services of doctors and lawyers and accountants. Most women have their heads covered with hajibs. Minarets and gold painted domes are seen every few blocks for mile after mile.
And as you drive west of downtown Detroit and see all this activity, it’s not lost on you that just a few miles behind you in Detroit proper are some of the most desperate neighborhoods in America, large stretches of vacant buildings that were long ago scrapped for metal, neighborhoods where even check cashing stores, pawns shops and thrift stores can’t find customers anymore. Some homes have been abandoned for so long that the underbrush has consumed them.
“One thing I always notice while I’m driving through here,” says Michigan State Rep. Harvey Santana, as we roll through Dearborn bustling retail district, “is that there are never any vacant storefronts. If you see a ‘for sale’ or ‘for rent’ sign it is gone in a few days. The middle-eastern community invests in their neighborhoods, and you can see the difference that makes when you look at other parts of the city.”
Last May, Stanford University political science professor David Laitin co-wrote a New York Times op-ed piece titled “Let Syrians Settle Detroit” in which he figured that if Gov. Snyder wanted 50,000 more visas for immigrants, why not use those to put a dent in the 4 million or so Syrians who are refugees and in need of shelter because of war. Decrease the refugee population and repopulate Detroit at the same time.
“When I wrote that piece, it was a mad idea and we did it to draw attention to a worldwide problem,” Laitin says. “But in many ways it seems like it would be plausible right now. The United States needs to step up to the plate and take in some of the Syrian refugees, and putting them in Detroit makes a lot of sense.”
But the national political election has stalled all talk of anything immigration, Laitin says, “Because there are plenty of political leaders who would say, ‘Yeah, this is a great idea,’ but they don’t want anyone to know they think that way.”
Over its history, America has used many different rationales for taking in refugees. Cubans were allowed in to Miami unfettered from the late fifties through the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 so the United States could publicly express displeasure with Fidel Castro and bring the island’s wealth creators to the states. The South Vietnamese came here in the 1970s and 1980s because the United States felt responsible for the lives of those who had helped us in our war effort. We made extra room in the 1990s for Bosnian war refugees mostly on humanitarian grounds. The fact that Syrian refugees could be assimilated into an existing U.S. community strengthens the economic and humanitarian cases for opening America’s doors to them.
One of the reasons the Detroit area makes sense as a Syrian refugee location is not only the number of middle easterners in the vicinity (about 400,000 by some estimates), but the diversity of the population. The Arab community in Metro Detroit is a mix of people from 22 countries, with various Islamic and Christian groups represented. One of the largest is the Chaldean community, a Catholic group with ties to Iraq mostly. Syrian refugees from the country’s many ethnic and religious fractions would fit in easily. And they would be joining a community eager to rebuild Detroit’s economic base.
“The story that isn’t being told is that the middle-eastern immigrants that come to Michigan are largely well-educated and people with a drive for success,” says Ahmad Chebbani, who owns a large accounting firm and is chairman and co-founder of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce. “They are taking a risk just to relocate here. They are coming here for opportunity.“
“The business and political leadership understand we need to regrow the population in Detroit,” says Chebbani, who emigrated to the United States from Lebanon in 1979. “What is the best way to do that? The political leadership needs to see that what needs to happen in Michigan has been done here before. You cannot oppose immigration all the time. It goes in cycles, and now is the time that it needs to be increased in this part of Michigan.”
But as Germany and other European countries question the United States’ failure to address this latest middle-eastern refugee crisis, Steve Tobocman, director of Global Detroit, says the idea of Detroit being an initial hub for the resettling of these refugees is sound for both the international crisis and for Michigan. Global Detroit is a non-profit that promotes international trade and retaining immigrants and their businesses; the Knight and Kellogg foundations, as well as Quicken Loans and others, fund it.
“The federal government awards refugee resettlement contracts on a national scale and looks, among other things, at the ability of resettlement agencies to integrate refugees into the community,” Tobocman, a former Michigan state representative, wrote in an email. “Metro Detroit, as the world’s most dense concentration of Middle Eastern people outside of the Middle East (second largest number Arab people after only Los Angeles—more than New York and London—but much higher percentage of regional population), offers Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees unique opportunities.”
“The idea [of bringing in 50,000 Syrian refugees to the Detroit area] is not farfetched,” says Fay Beydoun, who grew up in Dearborn. She is the daughter of Lebanese immigrants and chief operating officer of Tejara, a global trade organization of different ethnic groups based in Dearborn. “Foreign born residents are a significant source of economic prosperity to communities they settle in,” she insists. “They tend to be more affluent and prosperous than native-born residents in the region.”
That is true. According to the Migration Policy Institute, Syrian refugees are more educated than Americans on average, and multilingual to boot. Beydoun points out that “The very act of leaving your country shows a willingness to take risk, and that is a trait that works well in being an entrepreneur. Let’s not forget that metro Detroit is home to the largest concentration of Middle East migrants outside of the Middle East providing an existing framework for cultural, and social and economic support.”
One of the problems that Detroit has faced in recent years is it has not re-stocked itself with high numbers of foreigners in the way other cities have. In 1930, one-fourth of a Detroit’s population was foreign-born; by 1970, the percentage was in single-digits.
Presently, Detroit’s foreign-born population is far below the national average, which is about 13 percent. Detroit has about 4 percent in the city, and 8 percent in the region. The top metro areas in the country average 15 percent. According to a study released this week by the Pew Research Center, the foreign born population in the United States increased from 9.6 million in 1965 to 45 million this year. But Midwest cities like Detroit have not participated in that trend. In 1960, Detroit had about 200,000 residents born in another country but just 36,000 in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
These missing immigrants are a major topic of conversation in the Detroit area. As we drive through Dearborn bustling retail district, past the Ford River Rouge auto manufacturing complex that so many immigrants came to Detroit for, and past the 10-story twin minarets of Islamic Center of America (the largest mosque in North America), Rep. Santana echoes what many in Detroit have been saying for decades.
“We all know Detroit needs more people and outside investment, and we all know that there are people in the middle-east who want to leave their region and pursue the American dream,” he says. “And we have a history of immigrants here, we know how this works. But as we all know, sometime the obvious solutions to problems are the hardest to achieve.”
When Virgin Atlantic started non-stop service from Detroit to London in June of this year, the airline’s CEO, Sir Richard Branson, wrote about the economics and politics of Syrians coming to Detroit on his blog. “There are cities in the world like Detroit that need more people, have got empty buildings, and have the opportunity to welcome more refugees to settle there. When I was in Detroit last week, I spoke with Mayor Mike Duggan about this. He said he would welcome Syrian (and other) refugees with open arms, and was willing to talk to President Obama to try to get permission to take them into his city.”
“Mike [Duggan] understands the enormously positive role refugees can play. When given encouragement and support to rebuild their lives, refugees often develop enormous creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that can do wonders in their host communities. But to be absolutely clear, utility should never be our guiding principle. Real human need should. There shouldn’t be a question about it. The idea of refugees having to live on the streets while people debate whether or not to take them in is not human. If any one of us had to flee our country we would expect to be helped. Therefore it is only right that countries around the world offer their support in these situations. We have to be human.”
But in politics, the definition of human decency tends to move over time. It used to be that Republicans were in favor of immigration as a source of cheap labor and it was Democrats who fought for tighter immigration limits to increase native workers’ bargaining power. This was especially true in states like Michigan, where liberal unions and conservative business leaders had a push-pull relationship on immigration quotas. But with the decline of union power—and the growing anti-immigrant mentality of the far right—the debate has flipped. Democrats now support more immigration for social justice reasons while Republicans generally oppose it, in part because the far right voter base sees them as little more than purveyors of crime and sucking off the entitlement teat.
That is seen very clearly in recent polls. In a poll released in June by the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Republican voters view immigrants of all stripes as a “burden” who generally compete for jobs, housing and health care. On the other hand, 62 percent of Democrats agreed with a statement that immigrants “strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.”
Part of the argument that the Detroit area needs more foreign-born, skilled-workers is that the area cannot fill the needs with American-born STEM grads only, and that Detroit has the manufacturing infrastructure base that needs a push to move it back to the top. The Detroit area is still the center of much automobile and engineering innovation, and it ranks eighth among metro areas in the country in the number of H1B visas issued to skilled immigrants, ahead of cities like Seattle, Boston, Austin, Houston and the North Carolina Research Triangle, areas that one would assume are much higher tech in economic terms than Detroit.
“It’s not like we are asking for more visas for an area that would be building a high-tech economy from scratch, because we already have the educational research and background in doing innovative business,” says Donald Hicks, 40, a U.S. Military Academy at West Point grad and CEO of Ann Arbor-based LLamasoft, a firm with 150 employees and $40 million in annual sales, specializing in supply chain data analysis.
“Part of the problem here, though, is that we cannot fill many of the jobs we need to fill because of visa quotas,” Hicks continues. “It is especially apparent here, more so than in other parts of the country, because companies locating and succeeding here in the Detroit area can make a big difference in economic activity in this area.”
“If we want to be the very best at what we do, if we want to have the strongest companies and workforce in the world, why do we not want to have the best and the brightest from all over the world to work here,” he says. “Every year, we go through the visa lottery and some of my people go, and some stay, and it is a horrible way for our country to force businesses to operate.” Hicks says that if the visa system is not fixed, he may expand his office in London, or move a big portion of his business across the border to Windsor, Canada.
“We are not proposing anything radical,” he continues. “We like being here, and 80 percent of our workers are American, but we are an international company and in order to grow, we need the best to work for us. Sometimes those are people born elsewhere who want to work here.”
Tel Ganesan, 48, a University of Michigan grad and native of India, is the CEO of the software firm Kybba (headquartered in Farmington Hills, Michigan). He says the argument that extra visas for STEM fields cause foreigners to be hired over native-born workers and decreases wages is not supported by any studies. “80 percent of our 500 or so employees are local, but we do need foreign born engineers who have studied in this country to fill the gap,” he says.
“One of the attractions of Detroit for our work force, and the way we can recruit, is that Detroit right now has a cost of living that is very much less, than say, Silicon Valley,” Ganesan says. “We can grow here faster, and I know if the Republican leadership tries to do an anti-immigrant message in Michigan, it will play against them. Because the older folks in this state come from immigrants and the millennials either are them or work with them.”
But the politics of the immigration issues at play in Michigan are not as simple as that. When Donald Trump spoke in Flint, Michigan last month, a crowd of older and former Democrats was there to hear the anti-foreign car rhetoric that hasn’t been particularly relevant for decades. Honda, for instance, now builds more cars in the United States than in Japan, though not in Michigan. But that hurt still lingers in the older residents of Michigan who blame their economic decline on foreign businesses and trade deficits. The global economy, in their eyes, is a hindrance, not a way back to economic vitality.
“There’s a very strong ‘Made in the USA’ movement still in this area,” Dayne Walling, 41 told the Washington Post in August. “You’ll see bumper stickers that say: ‘Want to lose your job? Keep buying foreign.’ People understand that if there aren’t middle-class manufacturing jobs from American manufacturing companies, you end up with cheap foreign imports and low-paying service jobs.”
But such views seem to be especially prevalent in Macomb County, an older blue-collar suburban enclave just north Detroit, where county executive Mark Hackel has instituted a program that reaches out to immigrant communities and business leaders in the region to encourage them relocate to the county, which is a political mix, voting for Obama in both 2008 and 2012, but voting for Snyder in 2010 and 2014.
“I have not heard anyone here say anything bad about what we are doing, and I think that is because they know we have to do something to keep this area viable to live in,” says Hackel, a Democrat and former county sheriff. “Many of the people here are retired, and they know that as a community, we need young working people to pay for the programs we are going to need to keep the retirees happy.”
“There is a generational difference here, as the young folks see different ethnicities as a plus, and I’m seeing the older folks relate to that more and more,” he says. “We’ve gone to war with foreign competition in the auto biz, and we survived that somewhat, but we also learned from it. No one in the United States understands the global economy better than people in Michigan do, and we know that closing ourselves off from the world was the cause of many of our problems in the first place.”
I mention this to Harvey Santana as we eat at a Mexican restaurant just southwest of downtown Detroit. The restaurant was started by a Jesus “Chuy” Lopez, who came to the United States illegally from Mexico, is now a citizen and has expanded his operation to include a catering business and a print shop. The neighborhood is mostly recent Hispanic arrivals, replacing the ones that settled there in the 1970s and then moved out to the suburbs. Like other groups before them did.
Santana and I talk about how the millennials are more in tune with “blended culture,” how pita bread and hummus and sriracha sauce and pho soup are now mainstays of food culture in small and large cities, (“discount tourism” as some food writer have called the ethnic U.S. food trends), and how the immigrants are more likely to be in suburban neighborhoods than ever before. How there is acceptance of difference that the conservatives on the national level aren’t seeing. “We used to want to live in areas that were exactly like we were—with the same food and music and the same job our father worked in, punching that clock for 40 hours and going home and eating a TV dinner,” Santana7 says. “But those in college and just out on the job market don’t want that, and Detroit has the unique opportunity to reinvent itself because in many ways we have a blank canvas right now.”
“Yeah, we did get beat by the Japanese and we did learned from that,” he says. “We’re still getting through it. But we are open to things here. My district is 85 percent African-American and I am their representative and I’m Puerto Rican. Eminem is the main Detroit rapper and he is white. Many of the Detroit business leaders are Arab Muslims. Don’t try to say Detroit is all this or all that. Because we’ve always been lots of things here, and that is the way we will come back.”