Michigan as Midwest Silicon Valley?

Immigration is considered “part of the solution for our economic rebirth,” says the director of Global Detroit, a group that’s working to revitalize the region.

ETROIT, MI - JANUARY 6: Pedestrians cross Woodward Avenue as it snows as the area deals with record breaking freezing weather January 6, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. Michigan and most of the Midwest received their first major snow storm of 2014 last week and subzero temperatures are expected most of this week with wind-chill driving temperatures down to 50-70 degrees below zero. A 'polar vortex' weather pattern is bringing some of the coldest weather the U.S. has had in almost 20 years. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
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Ted Hesson, Fusion
Jan. 17, 2014, 3:59 a.m.

Michigan can be the Sil­ic­on Val­ley of the Mid­w­est.

Wait a sec, don’t click away just yet. We’ll ex­plain.

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Michigan has taken an eco­nom­ic beat­ing since the 1990s. The de­clin­ing auto in­dustry set off a chain re­ac­tion that crippled the state eco­nomy, and in 2008, the re­ces­sion hit par­tic­u­larly hard, trig­ger­ing a high fore­clos­ure rate.

There’s been one big bright spot in re­cent years, however: im­mig­ra­tion.

“We were look­ing for an­swers,” said Steve To­b­oc­man, the dir­ect­or of Glob­al De­troit, a group that’s work­ing to re­vital­ize the De­troit re­gion. “We saw im­mig­ra­tion as part of the solu­tion for our eco­nom­ic re­birth.”

Michigan was the one state in the coun­try to see its pop­u­la­tion drop from 2000 to 2010. Yet the num­ber of for­eign-born res­id­ents ac­tu­ally in­creased.

And for­eign-born en­tre­pren­eurs were hard at work. While im­mig­rants only made up 5.3 per­cent of Michigan’s for­eign-born pop­u­la­tion in 2010, they rep­res­en­ted 10.4 per­cent of all busi­ness own­ers that year.

Im­mig­ra­tion streams have been par­tic­u­larly gen­er­ous to Michigan, at least in terms of highly skilled new­comers. The state ranks 11th in the U.S. in terms of the share of for­eign-born pop­u­la­tion with a bach­el­or’s de­gree or more.

Not every state has ac­cess to the same pool of work­ers, so Michigan’s ex­ample might be dif­fi­cult to du­plic­ate in oth­er strug­gling Mid­west­ern cit­ies. All im­mig­rants can spur eco­nom­ic activ­ity, but it cer­tainly helps when the new­comers are doc­tors, law­yers and sci­ent­ists.

Still, for Michigan, the tech sec­tor rep­res­ents one of the biggest suc­cesses: 32.5 per­cent of tech star­tups in Michigan between 1990 and 2005 had an im­mig­rant founder.

People like Steve To­b­oc­man see that as an op­por­tun­ity. He spoke on Tues­day at an event held by the Amer­ic­an Im­mig­ra­tion Coun­cil for staffers on Cap­it­ol Hill. The idea: give politi­cians some sug­ges­tions about what they can do in their home dis­tricts, since fed­er­al im­mig­ra­tion re­form is look­ing pretty bleak these days.

His or­gan­iz­a­tion is already work­ing on sev­er­al pro­jects meant to draw and re­tain im­mig­rant tal­ent in the state, in­ter­na­tion­al stu­dents in par­tic­u­lar. Gov. Rick Snyder, a Re­pub­lic­an, sup­ports the ef­fort, as well.

Those stu­dents could be­come fu­ture en­tre­pren­eurs, but fed­er­al im­mig­ra­tion policy makes it a chal­lenge for them to stay after gradu­ation. In fact, for­eign stu­dents are asked to sign a waiver guar­an­tee­ing that they’ll leave after they com­plete their edu­ca­tion, To­b­oc­man said.

He wants to change that.

“We be­lieve that you ought to look at amend­ing the fed­er­al im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem to al­low im­mig­rants to go to places like De­troit and Michigan where they are most needed,” he said. “Wheth­er that is through a spe­cial visa that goes to cit­ies that have lost pop­u­la­tion or seen high un­em­ploy­ment…or wheth­er it’s look­ing at new ways with ex­ist­ing laws.”

Michigan serves as an ex­ample of what can be done on the state and loc­al level to draw im­mig­rant tal­ent through wel­com­ing pro­grams and state-level lob­by­ing ef­forts, but To­b­oc­man is hop­ing for big­ger policy change.

“Right now our fed­er­al sys­tem is really in the way for our growth and prosper­ity,” he said.

This art­icle is pub­lished with per­mis­sion from Fu­sion, a TV and di­git­al net­work that cham­pi­ons a smart, di­verse and in­clus­ive Amer­ica. Fu­sion is a part­ner of Na­tion­al Journ­al and The Next Amer­ica. Fol­low the au­thor on Twit­ter: @ted­hesson


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