I am a daughter of immigrants who grew up in Michigan's Indian and Pakistani community. Most often the response people have when they hear this is to ask: “Why, with all the glamorous cities in America, would so many people from South Asia choose to come to the Midwest?”
The answer is almost too easy: They already knew people here.
Understanding this simple fact could be crucial to the future of Michigan cities like Saginaw and Flint.
My parents’ story echoes the narrative of other immigrants in America. They came to the United States from India in 1990 and initially settled in Cleveland. My mom’s brother lived there, and my parents stayed with him when they first arrived. They later ended up moving to Troy, Mich. when my dad started his medical residency, and then, finally, to Saginaw, where he still practices medicine.
Many Rust Belt cities have turned to immigration as a means to stem population loss and jump-start economic activity. There are "welcoming initiatives" in Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis. As Jeff DeGraff noted in a recent Next Idea essay, immigrants are twice as likely to start a business and more likely to earn an advanced degree and apply for a patent than their American counterparts.
Critics argue it's a long shot to attract skilled immigrants to cities like Saginaw and Flint, especially given their reputations. These naysayers, however, are not looking closely enough at what exactly makes a city attractive to immigrants. To be sure, they look for security and education, but more than that, as I noticed in Saginaw, they look for people they already know.
So what’s the Next Idea?
It’s no secret that our nation’s immigration system needs a major overhaul. As policy wonks and politicians debate endlessly the way forward, one initiative that should be on the table is to create an “urban visa classification.” This would allow a path to residency for people who agree to settle for a certain number of years in areas of urban decline.
In January 2014, Governor Rick Snyder submitted a proposal to the federal government asking for the creation of an “urban pioneering” visa classification. Through this he hoped to bring 50,000 immigrants to the city of Detroit over five years. Part of the plan also emphasized retaining international students who are already studying at Michigan universities. Unsurprisingly, with Congress stalled on immigration reform, there has been little movement on this.
While we wait for our leaders to act, we must look at developing our own grassroots welcoming initiatives.
A few years ago, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I had the opportunity to turn what I had seen firsthand into an idea to help Flint attract more immigrants.
I worked with the Flint Area Reinvestment Office to put together a proposal for immigrant recruitment and retention. Along with the City of Flint, the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce, and the four local colleges and universities – University of Michigan-Flint, Kettering University, Baker College, and Mott Community College – I drafted a comprehensive framework for attracting immigrants to the city and helping them acclimate once they arrived.
Flint has many assets to draw on, including Hurley Medical Center and the universities. These institutions employ and educate thousands of people, with many hailing from around the world. Drawing on this existing population and focusing on ways to strengthen their ties to Flint could help retain immigrants who already reside in the area, as well as attract new ones.
Strong welcoming initiatives can help do just this.
In Philadelphia, one was created to help immigrants adjust to life in the city. The center includes English language classes, job training, and guides to certification for careers like engineering and medicine. There are also advisors to help with the process of starting a business, and they hold events to introduce newcomers to the rest of the community.
In Flint, we can start now by developing a welcoming initiative tailored to the immigrant communities already living there, then use their social networks to draw more people to the area. Building off these existing networks and incorporating the immigrant population can help ensure a smooth transition and a concerted, intentional effort to make the area more attractive to prospective newcomers.
It is crucial to involve the local community, as well, as immigrants can often be viewed with mistrust.
Having a framework in place to build a sense of togetherness is key to bridging that gap. Without one, it reinforces the impression that struggling cities are choosing to divert resources to attract new people instead of using them to uplift and empower the current population.
Whenever I talk to my parents about their experience of starting a life in the United States, they often say they felt like small fish in a constantly moving ocean when they first arrived. Everything – from food and culture to language and government – was new. A strong welcoming center, with local immigrants and residents working together, can help buffer that struggle and create a community that makes newcomers feel safe and comfortable, thereby attracting more.
My parents’ story mirrors that of many others who have come to this country in search of economic opportunity. It is a story of remarkable resilience. Michigan, and particularly cities like Flint and Saginaw, could use more people like them.
Harsha Nahata is a City Year AmeriCorps member in Detroit.