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Immigrants creating a brain gain in Michigan

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BRIAN DICKERSON: Immigrants creating a brain gain in Michigan

September 24, 2004

BY BRIAN DICKERSON

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

Gov. Jennifer Granholm got some good news Thursday about Michigan's efforts to attract and retain college-educated workers.

Speaking at a closed-door retreat where Granholm and her cabinet are framing their agenda for the year ahead, Wayne State University demographer Kurt Metzger said the state's much-ballyhooed brain drain is a myth -- at least after adjusting population figures for the thousands of degreed immigrants who've moved in since 1995.

Even as native 20-somethings flee the state for cooler pastures, Metzger's analysis of census data shows their college-educated peers from Asia and Latin America are migrating to Michigan in record numbers. The bottom line, he told the governor's brain trust, is that "we're more than replacing the educated native-born with the educated foreign-born."

Metzger, who oversees Wayne State's Center for Urban Studies, doesn't discount the significance of young Michiganders bailing for other states -- even if another recent analysis of census figures, this one by state demographer Ken Darga, suggests that about half of those natives eventually find their way home.

But Metzger says the census data he's studied suggest that policy makers underestimate the importance of attracting and retaining young, educated immigrants.

"What we're trying to point out is that immigration is extremely important to Michigan's economy," he told me Thursday. "We need to be watching federal immigration policy closely, to assure that the pipeline remains open."

Drain theory holds no water

Ironically, the Wayne State demographer shared his upbeat view with state policy makers just as Detroit's City Council is embracing an economic development plan that defines immigrants as the enemy.

In an 89-page blueprint approved by seven of the council's nine members this week, consultant Claud Anderson calls on Detroit's black majority to boycott businesses and services owned by immigrants and mimic the separatism he says has catapulted other minority groups to economic success.

"For blacks, immigration has always had negative consequences," Anderson writes in his "Powernomics Plan for Detroit." "Immigrants compete with blacks for resources, space, rights and the moral conscience of the dominant society."

Challenging the conventional economic wisdom, which credits immigration for the revitalization of many older American cities, Anderson contends that foreign newcomers have been a net drain on urban economies.

"Immigrant-headed households currently consume more in public services than they pay in taxes, creating a deficit for local governments of $11 to $20 billion annually," Anderson asserts in his report. Detroit and other financially burdened cities "suffer the immigration expenses quietly," he adds.

More literacy, less xenophobia

But it's hard to square this xenophobic claim with the statistics Anderson marshals to justify preferential treatment for native Detroiters.

According to 2000 U.S. Census figures cited elsewhere in his report to the Detroit City Council, immigrants in Detroit's suburbs have median family incomes that are nearly three times that of the majority black population in Detroit.

Immigrants are also five times as likely to own their own businesses, he notes.

Local Arab Americans, Anderson alleges, own "90 percent of all the gas stations, discount stores, grocery stores, liquor stores, food distributors and check-cashing outlets in Detroit," while Korean merchants take in "nearly 82 percent of all the revenue from black hair care products as well as most of the nails, wig shops, motels and barbecue restaurants in urban areas."

Hispanics, he adds, are "pushing native blacks out of janitorial, construction, domestic service, retail and other service-based industries."

Wayne State's Metzger agrees with Anderson on at least one point. Unlike the generations of immigrants that preceded them, he says, Michigan's most recent foreign arrivals are bypassing residences in Detroit for apartments and starter houses in its suburbs.

So Detroit residents must share the economic benefits generated by new immigrants with other municipalities.

But Metzger bridles at the notion that Detroiters can improve their economic lot by shunning non-African American merchants or excluding immigrants and Euro-whites from entrepreneurial opportunities.

"If the city really wants to make a comeback, it should be embracing everybody," he says.

Southeast Michigan's thriving immigrants have succeeded, Metzger says, "by figuring out that education is critical." If consultants like Anderson really care about black Detroiters, he adds, "they should be promoting literacy campaigns and credit counseling programs" instead of urging residents "to open businesses they aren't prepared to operate."

Even as Michigan experiments with strategies to retain native college graduates, Metzger adds, continuing to attract educated foreigners is critical to the state's economic growth.

In short, it's no time for anyone who wants to make a viable home here to be locking others out.

Contact BRIAN DICKERSON at 248-351-3697 or [email protected]

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