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Immigrants bypass Detroit for suburbs

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

A century ago, Detroit was a beacon to refugees from around the world. Today, depopulated and emerging from bankruptcy, re-lighting that welcoming torch could only benefit the city.

President Barack Obama's executive order halting some deportations may be controversial everywhere, but it's less relevant in Detroit, with its small immigrant population, legal and otherwise. In fact, there's wide consensus that boosting Detroit's immigrant population would provide a lever for the city's economic growth.

Both Gov. Rick Snyder — who touts his administration as the nation's most immigrant friendly — and Mayor Mike Duggan celebrate the idea of recruiting new Americans below Eight Mile. A nonprofit, Global Detroit, headed by Steve Tobocman, is strategically coordinating efforts to recruit immigrants from abroad to the Detroit area. Earlier this year, the Detroit City Council created an immigration task force that includes Bing Goei, director of the state's Office for New Americans.

The welcoming has begun.

So far, though, the needle is barely moving. Detroit, as the nation's 18th largest city, ranks 137th in foreign-born population, with a scant 34,623 immigrants among its 688,000 residents — about 5 percent. In contrast, prosperous Ann Arbor is 12 percent foreign born, according to U.S. census data, and the six-county metropolitan area is 10 percent foreign-born, if you don't count Detroit.

Foreign-born residents are so scarce in most Detroit neighborhoods that demographic maps show only a few pockets of immigrants, including a Bangladeshi neighborhood just north of Hamtramck and a bustling Hispanic neighborhood west of the Ambassador Bridge.

Outside the city borders, though, a growing, vibrant foreign-born population thrives in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties.

"If Detroit's immigrant population was proportional with other cities, we would have 108,000 more people," said Tobocman, a former state legislator who has crisscrossed the country and consumed dozens of academic studies to lay the groundwork for Global Detroit's efforts. More people would be building businesses, paying taxes, buying homes, raising property values, educating their children and creating a more vibrant urban fabric.

"The reality is that the region does really well with immigrants," Tobocman said. The region, not the city.

Even refugees fleeing oppression are more likely to settle in the suburbs. And once-thriving ethnic neighborhoods in Detroit have vanished during the past decade. Detroit's Chaldean Town — east of Woodward at Seven Mile — is now a deserted pocket of empty bakeries, restaurants and kabob stands, despite a new wave of Chaldean migration. Most of these new Americans settle in Macomb County communities, including Sterling Heights, Warren and Madison Heights, where they find services, ethnic foods, and relatives who already made the journey.

Detroit's vacant spaces attest to population loss and a loss of cultural diversity. But Global Detroit is coordinating efforts to bolster emerging communities. On the city's western border with Dearborn, a Yemeni neighborhood is growing.

To jump-start outreach, Snyder and Duggan jointly wrote the White House last January, proposing the federal government approve 50,000 work visas for professionals and entrepreneurs willing to live in Detroit for at least five years.

Although there's a perception that immigrants are economic burdens, studies consistently show the opposite: Immigrants create jobs and power economic growth. In other Midwestern cities, from Chicago to Minneapolis, large immigrant populations are charging urban economies.

On Friday, hundreds of international students converged downtown for a conference organized by GTRI, an East Lansing organization founded to help Michigan retain its international students. Besides learning about visas, resume writing and potential employers, students were given bus tours of city sites.

"We all have the belief that immigrants can have a positive impact," said Karen Philippi, deputy director of the Michigan Office for New Americans, who spoke at the event. "But if we don't have that welcoming environment, they won't come."

An attitude of openness and welcome is easy to espouse, but in a city that harbors a long and complex history, it's very much a work in progress.

"In order to effectively engage groups, it takes (much) longer than what we anticipated," said Kimberly Faison, director of ProsperUs Detroit, a nonprofit working with Global Detroit to teach skills to new business owners. Faison's group has trained 204 entrepreneurs in the last three years, all Detroit residents from different backgrounds. Another 90 are studying now.

A few weeks ago, participants took a City Hall bus tour designed to expose them to the maze of regulations. The program, by reaching longtime residents and newcomers, can chip away at some of the suspicions and distrust between African-American and foreign-born residents. Her goal: "We can all rise together."

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