Over the past decade, the Great Recession has perhaps punched Michigan workers the hardest.
Michigan was the only state in the country to lose population in that time span. More than 300,000 residents fled the state. Its peak unemployment rate of 14.1 percent ranks as one of the highest in the U.S. More than 1 in 5 residents in Detroit, its largest city, remain in search of work.
So it’s inexplicable to many in Michigan that one of the lynchpins in Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to put people back to work is encouraging an influx of immigrants. Snyder touted those plans in an exclusive Dan Rather Reports segment that aired earlier this week.
“I think it’s important for our future,” Snyder told Rather. “We’ve been in a recession for a decade. How do we really reinvent ourselves? One of the keys to how we build ourselves is immigration.”
It’s been a relevant issue in the state’s past. One century ago, immigrants comprised 33 percent of Detroit’s population during its nascent boom years. For a more contemporary example, Snyder gazes beyond Michigan’s borders toward Silicon Valley, and notes 47 percent of its residents are foreign born.
“I am focused on finding more and better jobs for Michiganders,” he tells Rather. “Encouraging legal immigration for advanced-degree people is consistent with that. They’re job creators.”
A study from the Small Business Administration shows immigrants in Michigan are three times as likely as native-born residents to start businesses, and six times as likely to start high-tech businesses. Snyder, a Republican, would like to tap that entrepreneurial spirit.
Steven Tobocman, author of Global Detroit, a recent report that formed the foundation of Snyder’s immigration policy, writes that 32.8 percent of the state’s high-tech firms over the past 10 years have been founded by immigrants, in a state where 6 percent overall are foreign born.
He’s an unlikely ally for Snyder. Tobocman served three terms in the Michigan House of Representatives, a Democrat representing Detroit’s southwest side.
“Nothing is more powerful for remaking Detroit as a center of innovation, entrepreneurship and population growth than embracing and increasing immigrant populations and the entrepreneurial culture and global connections that they bring and deliver,” he writes.
Many of the immigrants Snyder and Tobocman seek are already within the state’s borders. Approximately 23,000 foreign-born students currently attend the state’s colleges and universities, and the state spends “millions” educating them, according to Dan Rather Reports.
Visa restrictions and more lucrative opportunities elsewhere lure them away after graduation.
“It’s a great opportunity to keep our kids in a wonderful position,” Snyder said. “We already educate so many wonderful students from outside the country. Is there a way to help keep them here? … The other piece I want to do is talk to the communities that we have here that are already ethnic communities, and do they have outreach back in their countries to bring and attract people to Michigan. I think we can all win.”