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How immigrants are saving Michigan

Jan 23, 2017

Nobody knows exactly what our new president will do, or will be able to do. He hasn’t always been consistent, and much of what he wants would have to get through Congress.

But one of the things he has been fairly consistent about is immigration. He is still promising to build a wall, and has said he wants to force every undocumented person to leave.

Overall, while he hasn’t talked specifically about stopping legal immigration, Donald Trump has given a clear indication he isn’t crazy about that either.

As he said in his inaugural address:

“From this day forward, every decision … on immigration will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”

Well, that’s pretty straightforward. But if the president looks at the evidence, it’s pretty clear that the best prescription for prosperity is to allow not less but more immigration. The numbers very clearly tell the tale. If there’s one thing everybody agrees on, it is that we need more residents with college degrees.

Yes, being a skilled welder or an electrician is a fine thing, and there are, as the governor likes to say, plenty of jobs for those folks. But having more residents with at least a university bachelor’s degree is going to be the key to regaining prosperity in this century and the future.

Michigan, like surrounding old line manufacturing, or Rustbelt states, has had trouble holding on to educated young people. But there is a glimmer of hope.

There’s a feature in the Sunday Detroit Free Press, a little box tucked into a corner called “Raw Data,” Yesterday, it revealed the surprising news that between 2013 and 2015, Michigan gained a net 19,704 new residents with at least a bachelor’s degree.

That was more than Ohio or any other Great Lakes state. The item quoted Kurt Metzger, the demographer who is now mayor of Pleasant Ridge, as saying that this indeed puts us in a good position compared to our neighbors and rivals.

But when I looked more closely at the numbers, it was clear that the "brain drain" of our native born citizens hasn't stopped.

But when I looked more closely at the numbers, it was clear that the “brain drain” of our native born citizens hasn’t stopped. During those years, about 109,000 educated people moved into Michigan from other states. But more than 135,000 Americans with college degrees left.

We were saved by the arrival of more than 46,000 college-educated immigrants. These are not people who came to take the jobs of Americans; they came for jobs employers couldn’t fill, and increasingly, to start businesses, pay taxes, and create jobs.

Governor Rick Snyder knows this. That’s why he has repeatedly asked Washington to let Michigan have more special visas for highly educated immigrants.

Last year, a state government report, The Contributions of New Americans in Michigan, revealed that immigration has boosted our economy and helped pull us out of the Great Recession. Immigrant-owned businesses generated more than $600 million in income and employed more than 150,000 people.

The report also said we’d be better off if many of the 125,000 undocumented immigrants in Michigan were made legal. This would give us more tax revenue rather than helping terrorism.

I don’t expect these facts to sway our new president. But I would hope some members of Congress would look at the numbers before approving any measure that might damage our fragile economy.

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.