Column: Immigrants are key to reviving working class

Steve Tobocman

Compelling new research documents how immigrants are undeniably part of the solution to start reversing the job loss and wage stagnation impacting Michigan’s working-class. Released by the New American Economy, a coalition of mayors and corporate CEOs led by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition, a group of 38 local chambers of commerce from across the Rust Belt, the report provides detailed and exhaustive evidence that immigrants are a critical part of the solution to the Rust Belt’s working-class economic concerns.

Working-class voters are understandably frustrated about the economic changes that have been afoot for the last 15 years. According to the report, the Great Lakes region lost 1 million working-class jobs between 2000-2015 and saw real wages for working-class workers fall 6.4 percent over this period. Wall Street bailouts. Technological advances that result in lower wages (rather than higher ones as would be predicted by traditional advances in productivity). And CEO compensation levels that defy historic expectations. These factors undergird working-class anxieties. These economics fueled working-class voters — many who supported Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump in the 2016 elections.

Metro Detroit lost 220,000 U.S.-born residents (5 percent loss) between 2000-2015, while the immigrant population grew by 80,000 during that time (24 percent growth rate), helping to stave off that loss. While the number of U.S.-born homeowners in the Great Lakes region fell 0.6 percent from 2000-2015, the number of immigrant homeowners in the region grew 36.5 percent during this period.

Immigrants are also providing an important counterbalance to our region’s rapidly aging population. Across the Great Lakes, the number of senior citizens grew 21.2 percent, or 2 million residents, from 2000-2015. While only 51.1 percent of the region’s U.S.-born population is working aged (25-64), 70 percent of its immigrant population is working aged. Moreover, immigrants are an incredible source of young talent.

One way immigrants contribute to job growth is entrepreneurship. By launching high-tech firms, as well as Main Street businesses, immigrant entrepreneurs in Metro Detroit are helping to build a more prosperous regional future. The report highlights Tel Ganesan, who came to Wayne State from India and worked for Chrysler for 13 years before launching Kyyba, an IT and engineering company in Farmington Hills that now employs 600 U.S. workers. The report notes that between 2000 and 2015, the number of U.S.-born entrepreneurs in Metro Detroit dropped by 8.5 percent, while the number of foreign-born entrepreneurs increased quickly by 38 percent.

Basil Bacall, an Iraqi-born Chaldean entrepreneur owns 21 hotels and has invested some $210 million into them. Bacall’s businesses employ 530 workers, 90 percent of whom are U.S.-born. Some of these workers, like Brandon Tomlinson, the son of two GM Flint auto-workers, earn twice what his hotel job paid prior to working for Bacall. In fact, the report reveals that 1 out of every 3 Main Street businesses in Metro Detroit was owned by an immigrant in 2015 (at a time that immigrants comprised roughly 9 percent of the metro population).

The report also details the ways in which immigrants are creating working-class jobs in key sectors of the Great Lakes economy. In both health care (where 80 percent 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. These immigrant workers are enabling Great Lakes companies and industries to compete, expand, and invest in ways that are creating tens of thousands of working-class jobs with wages growing faster than in other sectors.

Working-class voters are understandably angry about the last 15 years. Yet, the belief that immigrants are to blame is off base and without evidence. The report concludes that “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.”

I am privileged to lead one of them — Global Detroit. It’s not that anyone has all the solutions to reverse the economic challenges facing Great Lakes workers, but there’s a lot of evidence in this research to suggest that robust immigration is one of them.

Steve Tobocman is executive director of Global Detroit.