Why immigrants are the best thing to happen to Michigan

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click to enlarge Why immigrants are the best thing to happen to Michigan

The other night, I was watching Mel Brooks' hilariously funny Blazing Saddles, possibly the most politically incorrect movie ever made. The n-word is used more often in the opening scenes than Donald Trump says "trust me" in a week.

Yet somehow, it isn't really offensive, because the movie is poking fun at us and our weaknesses as a society.

Every sexist and racist stereotype is gleefully invoked, parodied — and thereby, effectively demolished.

When it was over, I suddenly realized something: Sadly, that movie could never be made today. Not because we are more enlightened, but because we no longer are self-confident enough as a people and a nation to laugh at ourselves.

Not that everything was peachy when Blazing Saddles was being made. The film was released when the country was neck-deep in the Watergate scandal. Inflation was rising. America's participation in the Vietnam War had ended just a year earlier, and we all knew it was a horrible failure.

Yet we still believed in the idea of America, that this was the best nation in the world. The next year, when the tottering corpse of South Vietnam finally collapsed, we took in thousands of refugees. We knew immigrants had made this nation great.

Not anymore.

Flash forward four decades, to a nation whose president won his office in large part by stirring up everything in the dark recesses of the American soul. That meant, first of all, attacking immigrants and blaming them for society's ills.

Donald Trump ran the nastiest anti-immigrant campaign this nation has seen since the Know Nothing movement back before the Civil War. He managed to make millions feel that Muslims were terrorists and Mexicans drug dealers and rapists.

What's more, he made people feel that immigrants, legal as well as illegal, were taking their jobs, and vowed to crack down on immigration and get Americans their jobs back.

Enough people in the right places believed him to put him in the White House. Yes, we will be sorting out and dealing with the ramifications of that for the rest of our lives.

We can, as a result, only hope that the babies being born this year will someday live in a United States of America with a government they can be proud of.

But that's not the topic today. Immigration is.

What I fear is that people will still believe Trump's lies about immigrants and immigration even after he is discredited and disgraced, is hauled out of office, is defeated, dies, or decides to leave of his own accord. So now, here's the truth:

Immigrants are — right now perhaps more than ever — the best thing to happen to Michigan.

They create more jobs than native-born Americans. They improve communities, start businesses, and invent things needed to make us economically competitive again.

That's been clear to everyone who worked with immigrant communities for a long time. But now, we have documented proof of that. Earlier this month, the Michigan Economic Center, a non-profit based in Ann Arbor, released a carefully researched study on immigration's impact on this state.

The study, "Michigan: We Are All Migrants Here," conclusively shows that we would be in a lot worse shape without the immigration we've had in recent years.

John Austin, who was until January president of the State Board of Education, founded the center and is a main author of the study. "Michigan relies on legal immigrants to grow our economy, and we literally cannot afford policies that discourage them from coming, or that chase away those who are here," he says.

The study, which Austin did in collaboration with former State Rep. Steve Tobocman's group Global Detroit, effectively exposes many myths about immigrants as blatant lies.

Far from being a drain on Michigan, immigrants are essential to its economy. Detroit hasn't stopped losing people in the last few years, but the outflow has slowed dramatically.

This is, however, almost entirely due to immigrants. Detroit's immigrant population grew by 13 percent between 2010 and 2014; the native-born kept heading for the exits.

Statewide, the picture was much the same; Michigan's foreign-born population has grown nearly 25 percent since 2002 — which more than accounts for what growth there's been.

That doesn't mean they are taking over. Far from it; Michigan has the smallest percentage of its population born outside this country of any state except Louisiana.

That's only 650,000 people, or just over six percent. But as Austin likes to say, economically they "punch above their weight." About 31,000 are self-emplyed, and they employ some 150,000 people.

Immigrants are, the study says, responsible for nearly all the net new growth in mid-sized, "Main Street" businesses.

They aren't just running hotels and hiring counter help; they are creating the economy of the future. Immigrants are behind 25 percent of the state's high-tech startups.

They are the owners or co-owners of more than three-quarters of the patents issued to the state's top research universities. They are, on average, better educated than the native-born, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) areas and jobs.

They are, in short, Detroit and Michigan's economic future — if we are to have one. Gov. Rick Snyder can be a bumbler, but he understood that much; to his credit, he tried (unsuccessfully) in 2014 to get Washington to give Michigan 50,000 extra visas for skilled or highly educated immigrants.

To be sure, some immigrants aren't well-educated; one of the curious findings of the study was that while immigrants on average have more education than the native born, a higher percentage of them have less than a high school degree.

But the study notes that "research strongly indicates ... that far from being an economic drain, these immigrants are important to many Michigan industries," because they are willing to do the jobs those born here are seldom willing to do.

Few Michigan immigrants are undocumented, aka "illegal." But that doesn't mean Trump's persecutions don't have an effect. Austin told me that after dozens of Chaldeans were rounded up and arrested in the Detroit suburbs last month, that "sent a chilling message to Michigan's legal immigrants, current and future: You are not welcome here."

Trump's anti-immigrant policies are, in fact, more damaging to Michigan than most places. What the Michigan Economic Center study recommends is that the politicians collaborate with business leaders to make this the most welcoming state in the nation.

Otherwise, we may get to see immigrants fleeing or shunning our state — and what prosperity we have with them.

What about terrorism?

Those wanting to severely limit immigration, especially from the Middle East, often parrot fears about Islamic terrorism. This, to be sure, deserves consideration, but the government has been doing rigorous screening since 9/11, long before Trump arrived.

Except for that event, virtually all of those committing terrorist acts in this country have been Americans born here.

Some have been Muslim, or pretended to be, but the worst domestic terrorist attack by far, apart from 9/11, was the Oklahoma City bombing, carried off by those two good old Christian boys, Timothy McVeigh and the mauler from Michigan's thumb, Terry Nichols.

And whether Trump fears assassination isn't known, but he might be interested to know that most of our famous assassins or would-be assassins — Lee Harvey Oswald, Arthur Bremer, Mark David Chapman, Sirhan Sirhan, John Hinckley — were young, white, and mostly Christian men.

What about leaving the job-creating immigrants alone, and deporting all the native-born white male 20-somethings instead? Frankly, that might make more sense.

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