By Jacob Kanclerz, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
LANSING – Studies show that immigrants are twice as likely to start a business as other people, so several Michigan organizations are welcoming them to spur economic growth.
But despite support from Gov. Rick Snyder, state agencies and non-profit organizations, bills pending in the Legislature could undermine that effort, said Anika Fassia, a policy analyst with the Michigan League for Human Services.
With the state trying to climb out of a decade-long recession, hindering a population known to revive local economies is puzzling, she said.
“At a time of really high unemployment and in a state that was the only one to lose population, it makes no sense to impose or implement any anti-immigrant legislation when they have proven to contribute to the local economy, create businesses, create jobs,” she said.
Immigrants were responsible for 32.8 percent of high-tech start-up companies in Michigan between 1995 and 2006, according to a report by the Michigan League for Human Services. It ranked Michigan seventh in the nation for new immigrant business owners between 1996 and 2007. Foreigners contribute to the economy by paying college tuition and Social Security and Medicare taxes, despite their ineligibility for those benefits, Fassia said.
To capitalize on foreign investment, in February Snyder established Global Michigan, a partnership of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the Department of Civil Rights. He charged the group to attract and retain foreign-born talent.
The state is also working with nonprofits like the Prima Civitas Foundation in East Lansing to use immigrants to help connect Michigan businesses to investment opportunities abroad.
Meanwhile, Fassia notes several anti-immigration bills sitting in the Legislature. A bill sponsored by Rep. David Agema, R-Grandville, would require public employers and their contractors to use an electronic database to detect illegal workers. The e-verify database contains Social Security numbers and other personal information to confirm an employee’s identity, said Susan Reed, the supervising attorney for the Michigan Immigrants Rights Center.
A similar bill proposed by Agema extends the same requirement to temporary work agencies, where many undocumented workers are employed, Reed said.
Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, would make English the official language of Michigan. The bill would require state and local governments to use English in their official documents. There are exceptions to comply with federal laws to improve access for foreigners, Reed said.
Still, the bill could harm efforts to attract immigrants, she said. “It would send a message that Michigan is not interested in welcoming immigrants.”
Despite these hurdles, efforts are underway to grow businesses with the help of foreigners.
Prima Civitas is organizing Michigan businesses to bid on building a massive housing project, in Iraq. It could bring up to $6 billion to those companies, said Tremaine Phillips, the chief program officer for Prima Civitas. The initiative is a partnership between the foundation and Sami Al-Araji, a Michigan State University graduate and the chairman of the National Investment Commission of Iraq. Al-Araji, a native of Iraq, proposed the idea to show his gratitude for the time he spent here.
“That’s just one case in point where someone who had an excellent experience and time here while they were at MSU and while they were within the state of Michigan, has come back and is bringing a multibillion dollar investment to the citizens as well as the businesses within the state of Michigan,” Phillips said.
Keeping those international students in Michigan is one of Global Michigan’s strategies to attract and retain more highly-educated immigrants, said Maria Nevai, the program manager for talent enhancement programs with Global Michigan. While Global Michigan is in its early stages, state officials are looking at a variety of strategies, including identifying obstacles to welcoming immigrants. The group is waiting for more specifics from Snyder later this month after his next special message on retaining talented people.
The largest obstacle Global Michigan has to fight is perception, said Nevai.
“I think there is common perception that immigrants take jobs away from people in Michigan, and on the contrary, it’s just the opposite,” she said.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
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