Is Too Few Immigrants in Detroit a Problem?

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September 16, 2014; Knight Foundation Blog

Sometimes foundations provide grant support to groups that appear strong and tough, but are actually milquetoast. That doesn’t appear to be the case in the Knight Foundation’s selection of Global Detroit to promote talent recruitment and development in that severely troubled city. Steve Tobocman, the director of Global Detroit, is a longtime activist in the city and a sharply focused critic of the serial strategies that been implemented in (and sometimes imposed upon) Detroit without much positive effect.

The Knight Foundation’s grant support of Tobocman’s Global Detroit suggests a foundation grant made to an organization led by someone who will tell city and state officials, corporate leaders, and foundations the way it truly is.

We remember Tobocman from his work as a public-spirited lawyer and as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives. Part of his track record was in Southwest Detroit, an area of the city often described as a “working-class neighborhood…that is revitalizing,” a description rarely applied to other neighborhoods. The success of any movement of Southwest Detroit toward revitalization is partly due to demographics: The neighborhood, significantly Latino, contains half of Detroit’s foreign-born residents.

Tobocman and his organization, Global Detroit, think that part of the problem for Detroit is its small foreign-born population and its limited mechanisms for attracting foreign immigrants. He notes in this blog post that after decades of massive population losses, Detroit is nonetheless the 18th-largest city in the nation by population, but the 135th-largest in terms of foreign-born residents. Global Detroit believes—we think correctly—that immigrants play a positive role in boosting local and regional economies around the U.S., notwithstanding the anti-immigrant hysteria that sadly grips so many Americans.

Global Detroit has initiated several programs aimed at making Detroit more attractive to immigrants and helping them invest in and integrate into the Detroit community, much as immigrants have been doing in Southwest Detroit. Tobocman’s article identifies several such initiatives, supported by over $7 million in corporate and philanthropic investment:

He indicates that this work helped prompt Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to create the Michigan Office for New Americans. The Knight Foundation’s support for Global Detroit will help the organization expand its existing programs and initiate a “Cultural Ambassadors” program connecting volunteers with immigrant professionals to make Detroit into “an immigrant-friendly city and region.”

Tobocman’s blog post and the Knight Foundation’s grant underscore issues that have been raised in the NPQ Newswire for some time:

  • Tobocman suggests that the Knight grant to Global Detroit, as well as Knight’s support of initiatives in other cities, will help the organization test the theory that attracting and integrating immigrants boosts local and regional economies. It strikes us that that point has been proven for some time. Cities, regions, even nations that fail to attract and retain immigrants over time fall behind. What has to be tested and proven is the kind of programs that will work to attract and retain immigrants and their investments. Global Detroit’s program array looks like it can be a model for cities and regions across the U.S. so long as mechanisms like the Knight Foundation are prepared to put extra muscle into documenting and communicating Global Detroit’s results.
  • Where an open welcome mat exists, the focus on immigrants is limited to those with professional skills and investment capital. (Some of the pro-immigrant advocacy by Silicon Valley tech leaders, for example, has that feel.) To be fair, many immigrants who don’t possess technical backgrounds and who don’t come to the U.S. with investment capital can still be economic boons to cities and regions due to their hard work. Immigrants don’t come to the U.S. to be stuck in poverty, much less to be on the public dole, despite what anti-immigrant campaigners say. Their energies for self-improvement and community betterment can be channeled into neighborhood renewal efforts that may very well look like Southwest Detroit’s, where the typical immigrants may be working-class rather than big-money businesspeople.
  • Tobocman needs no instruction from us, but others might want to remember that to Detroit’s predominantly black community, initiatives geared toward attracting and supporting newcomers might be seen as giving short shrift to the Detroiters who have stuck it out all these years despite municipal government incompetence, state government insouciance, and massive corporate disinvestment. Putting out the welcome mat to immigrants who might move to Detroit has to be accompanied by muscular programs to help those who are already there, else these efforts become part of an agenda that has long ignored the needs of Detroit’s present residents.

When it happens, neighborhood revitalization has always capitalized on the vibrancy of multiple population groups. In fact, the history of this nation is one in which immigrants have contributed mightily to economic advancement. Tobocman’s work shows that it is critical for the revitalization of neighborhoods and whole regions to be open and welcoming to immigrants. The alternative is a self-destructive close-mindedness that condemns communities to demographic and economic torpor.—Rick Cohen