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Midwest immigration reform: A pragmatic answer to Washington gridlock


This year seems poised to be a historic year for immigration in the United States. After three decades of robust immigration, which have seen the number of immigrants in the U.S. rise from 14.1 million in 1980 to almost 40 million in 2010, the U.S. Congress appears poised to pass some form of immigration reform. While debates in Washington and elsewhere still talk about immigration as a social, political, human, and civil rights issue, a pragmatic movement spreading across the Midwest has begun to move past this discourse to embrace immigration as an opportunity for regional economic growth.

With population loss from the decline of industry, a rapidly aging population, high unemployment rates, and low educational attainment rates across the region, this organic and exciting movement has turned to immigration as a potential solution for these shared problems. Research has underpinned these efforts to encourage robust immigration to Rust Belt metros as an innovative answer to these difficult issues. One of the first such studies was conducted by Global Detroit in 2010 and served as the blueprint for launching a half dozen specific initiatives over the last three years.

The Global Detroit study found that multiple facets of immigration enhance the economic prosperity of non-immigrants and are key to moving into the new economy. The Global Detroit study found that immigrants in Michigan were more than three times as likely as non-immigrants to start a new business between 1996 and 2007, and more than six times as likely to start a high-tech firm. Immigrants in southeast Michigan are also 150 percent as likely to possess a four-year college degree than native-born, and while only comprising 6.1 percent of Michigan’s population, they are awarded 62 percent of all Ph.D.s in engineering. These statistics and the overwhelming amount of other evidence show that encouraging immigration is a viable strategy to stimulating the wider economy of the region, including the economic vitality of urban neighborhoods.

Over the past four years, separate initiatives recognizing these findings to promote immigration as an economic development tool have produced Global Detroit, Vibrant Pittsburgh, Global Cleveland, Welcome Dayton, and Global Michigan with other programs emerging in Indianapolis, Lansing, Buffalo, and St. Louis – none of which existed before 2009. Each of these initiatives utilizes an asset-based perspective – viewing immigrants and refugees as opportunities, rather than helpless victims.

They look at the immigrant communities in their region as assets to be nurtured and grown as a means of producing economic opportunity for the entire region. These organizations house programs to help welcome immigrants and transition to a new country and culture, entrepreneurial training programs specifically targeted to immigrants, programs to retain talented international students in the region, strategies to attract global talent, and more.

Global Detroit has emerged as a leader in this Midwest movement, raising over $5 million in funding for initiatives working to open Metro Detroit to this new immigration movement. And although cooperation has occurred among these separate Midwest initiatives on an ad-hoc basis, a need and desire for a network of collaboration has emerged.

This Thursday, June 6, Global Detroit is hosting an initial Global Great Lakes Network convening at the University of Detroit Mercy Law School in downtown Detroit.

The initiatives previously mentioned from across the Midwest, as well as folks from Columbus and other cities, will come together to begin to form a collaborative network where best practices and strategies can be shared. A cohesive strategy will be developed to further connect the Midwest to a global economy and move towards a view of immigration as an economic development tool for the region.

Comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level has never been closer. It would provide some significant changes to the American talent pool and workforce. Global Detroit and the other programs of the Global Great Lakes Network are not waiting for the federal government. Instead, these "early adopters" have been focused on preparing their regions to compete in the global economy by developing economic and social environments designed to capitalize on international talent, investment, and trade in a manner that benefits their entire region.

The Global Great Lakes Network invites you and anyone else who is interested in being a part of this exciting immigration movement to attend and learn with us.  

For more information and to RSVP, go here.
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