How immigrants are helping Detroit’s recovery
“WE ARE proud of our Muslim community in Michigan,” says Rick Snyder, the state’s Republican governor, sitting in his office in the grandiose Cadillac Place, the former headquarters of General Motors. Ever since his first state-of-the-state address in 2011, Mr Snyder has emphasised the importance of welcoming people from across the world to this large midwestern state. Thanks to once-plentiful jobs in the car industry, greater Detroit has the largest Arab-American community in America. Almost half the population of Dearborn, a suburb that is home to Ford Motor Company, is from the Middle East. Hamtramck, another Detroit suburb, is the first city in America with a majority-Muslim city council.
Mr Snyder and Mike Duggan, the mayor of Detroit, are making population growth a gauge of their efforts to revitalise a state that is slowly recovering from a “lost decade” and a city devastated by the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Between 2000 and 2010 Michigan lost nearly 800,000 jobs, income per head fell from America’s 17th-highest to 39th, and residents fled. In the same period the population of Detroit, a city built for 2m, plunged to just over 700,000. By the start of the next decade the city’s roads had fallen into disrepair; public schools were among the worst in the country; thousands of households had no running water and tens of thousands of building plots were derelict or vacant.
In his most recent state-of-the state address last month, the governor set the goal of reaching 10m state residents again in the next three years. He proudly pointed out that, in the past six years, Michigan had gained 50,000 new people. “Immigrants account for all of that population growth,” explains Steve Tobocman, head of Global Detroit, a non-profit organisation promoting immigration.
For Mayor Duggan, even a slowdown in his city’s depopulation is good news; and he owes it entirely to immigrants. From 2010 to 2014, Detroit lost 36,000 residents who had been born in America. It gained 4,400 new immigrants—not enough to offset the population loss, but a significant increase in the share of immigrants in the city’s population.
A drive round greater Detroit’s vast web of roads and freeways shows that the growing immigrant population is making its mark. On Dearborn’s Ford Road sits America’s largest mosque, the Islamic Centre of America, with its golden dome and two slim minarets; it contains a school, library and conference centre. Also in Dearborn is the country’s only Arab-American museum, which chronicles the experience of the new arrivals from the Middle East with displays such as the sewing machine an immigrant used to start a small sportswear factory. Decades ago other groups preceded the Arabs, congregating—and building businesses—in Mexicantown in south-western Detroit and Greektown in the city centre.
Three years ago Mr Snyder created the Michigan Office for New Americans, with the aim of attracting skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants. The statistics are encouraging. Immigrants create businesses at triple the rate of American-born residents. Between 2011 and 2015, 63% of adult immigrants to Michigan had a college degree. Immigrants still represent only 6% of the state’s population, but 33% of high-tech firms created there between 1990 and 2005 have at least one immigrant founder. Many of them set up shop in newly trendy downtown Detroit.
Signs abound that Detroit has turned the corner, at least in the downtown and midtown neighbourhoods. Opposite Cadillac Place are the offices and workshop of Shinola, a trendy maker of expensive watches and bikes, which Tom Kartsotis started with ten employees five years ago and now employs more than 350 in Detroit. In January the last of the city’s 65,000 new streetlights was switched on. A light-rail line is being built, and the city has put 80 new buses on the roads. Some 10,800 blighted houses have been torn down since 2014; another 2,500 will be removed soon. The rate of payment of property taxes has increased from just 68% during the city’s bankruptcy to 82%, in part thanks to a fairer assessment of the tax burden.
How do Michiganders feel about President Donald Trump’s effort to ban travellers from seven countries with predominantly Muslim populations? Mr Snyder says, diplomatically, that it opens a debate. But in several Michigan cities, especially Detroit, protests erupted. After hesitating, the chairman and chief executive of Ford released a statement saying they did not support it. But the ban, combined with newly stringent raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency charged with deporting undocumented workers, is sowing fear among immigrants, says Mr Tobocman. Such fear is the last thing Detroit needs, as it tries to lure them in.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The boon of the huddled masses”