Commentary
11:00 am
Mon July 25, 2011

Michigan's Immigrant Problem

Over the past year, you’ve probably heard of the controversy in Arizona, where the legislature last year passed a tough law designed to identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants. This was followed by similar laws in other states, including Utah, Alabama, and closer to home, Indiana. Court battles are now going on over whether these laws are constitutional, since immigration policy is normally seen as the responsibility of the federal government.

Many who oppose these laws say they intimidate legal immigrants and even those whose ancestors may have been citizens for centuries, but may vaguely “look Mexican” or “look Arabic.”

Farmers and growers in a number of states have reported difficulties recruiting the migrant workers they depend on, precisely because of such laws. Nevertheless, a number of proposed Arizona-type laws are being talked about in the Michigan legislature.

Well, Michigan does have an immigrant problem, but not the one you might think. We need more immigrants - lots more. Throughout history, immigrants have been the most productive, most industrious and most job-creating members of American society.

Here in Michigan, and especially in Detroit, they are needed more than ever. In case you didn’t notice, we were the only state in the union to actually lose population over the last decade.

The population of Detroit is in virtual freefall, with now probably fewer than seven hundred thousand in a space meant for two million. The best thing for our dying central city would be a large infusion of talented, hard-working immigrants.

There are many people who fear immigrants would take work away from poor African-Americans for whom there are already too few jobs. That was the attitude of Detroit’s former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, when I raised this with him nearly a decade ago.

And he’s not alone. Those who think that, however, are dead wrong. Nobody knows that better than Steve Tobocman, who heads something called the Global Detroit Initiative, a non-profit aimed at boosting the economy by welcoming immigrants to the Detroit  area.

Tobocman is a persuasive guy. He’s a white Jewish attorney who got a mainly African-American district to elect him to the legislature as long as term limits allowed. He has compiled statistics that prove that most of what many people think about immigrants is dead wrong.

They are job creators, not job takers. In places where there are a high percentage of immigrants, black unemployment rates are actually lower than other places. Immigrants are far more likely to have college degrees, to start businesses, and employ Americans.

Tobocman is usually classified as a liberal Democrat. Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan, is a pro-business Republican.

Yet on this, they agree. “One of the keys that made us successful in the past is going to again be the key to our success in the future, and that’s immigration,” Snyder said last week.

Congressman Hansen Clarke says he plans to introduce legislation to make it easier for foreign investors to start businesses here. But there’s already a little-known special visa that gives  immigrants an automatic green card provided they are willing to invest at least half a million dollars and create ten jobs.

Attracting more immigrants might be the best thing we could do for our economy. This is an idea whose time has very clearly come.