As a business immigration attorney who practices in the Detroit metropolitan area, I’ve enjoyed a front row seat to compelling accounts of what the “American Dream” entails. Yes, the “Dream” is still alive today. The vast majority of these individuals had an unyielding drive to build a prosperous life for their families. Immigrants arriving in Detroit in 2020 likely have the same drive and zest as the immigrants who arrived three centuries ago. Due to the booming automobile industry in the early 20th century, Detroit’s growing immigrant population flipped the city into one of America’s most ethnically diverse cities.
Although the U.S. automotive industry hummed along throughout succeeding decades, it encountered massive speed bumps around the 21st century. Increases in gas prices lowered profits as American consumers purchased fewer trucks and SUVs. Pension payouts played a toll on bottom lines as well. These struggles were compounded by the Great Recession between 2007 and 2009. Detroit was uniquely affected by the economic downturn as its economy was reliant on automotive sales. The city was in debt by $18 to $20 billion and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013; the filing marked the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Detroit’s population fell from nearly two million residents in 1950 to merely 714,000 in 2010 according to U.S. Census Bureau records. As homeowners and jobs left the city, property and income tax revenues plummeted. While it was a difficult time in Detroit’s history, the Motor City ultimately emerged out of bankruptcy near the end of 2014 and has pieced together a remarkable comeback story.
During those difficult economic times, immigrants played an instrumental role in buoying the region and continue to be a key factor in the city’s ongoing resurgence. Between 2010 and 2014, Detroit’s U.S. born population decreased by 5.3% (according to the Census, this translates to 35,991 people). Within the same timeframe, Detroit’s immigrant population grew by 12.7% (translating to 4,362 additional foreign-born residents) according to the Census’ American Community Survey. Furthermore, between 2012 and 2017, the total population of Detroit’s Wayne County decreased by 2.2% while the county’s immigrant population jumped by 24%. Without such immigrant migration, Wayne County’s population loss would’ve been approximately 4%. While holding $489.8 million in remaining spending power, these individuals also paid $92.4 million in federal taxes and $53.7 million in local and state taxes in 2014 (https://research.newamericaneconomy.org/report/new-americans-in-detroit/). Later, in 2016, Michigan ranked fourth in the country for highest number of incoming refugees. Many of these refugees, particularly those from the Middle East, opened businesses that employed hundreds and contributed an estimated $230 million to $295 million into Metro Detroit’s economy in 2016. These findings were discovered by a Global Detroit study. Chaldeans in Macomb County, a county bordering Wayne County, have revived shopping plazas with new stores and bakeries while lifting a previously sluggish housing market. Similarly, BanglaTown sprouted organically as Bangladeshis revitalized neighborhoods in Detroit and Hamtramck that had previously suffered population loss. Immigrants have proven to bring exciting potential for restoring communities with distressed populations.
Today, Detroit is orchestrating a steady comeback as bankruptcy is becoming smaller and smaller in our rearview mirror. As we look into what the city’s future entails, it’s important to acknowledge how immigrants have revitalized a city that many people had long written off. Going by its track record, immigration should be viewed as a strategy for developing vibrant cultures, building communities, growing a tax base, and creating job openings. Detroit’s history was written by immigrants and I firmly believe they will help author its future as well.
An expanded version of this article will be in an upcoming AILA Insight newsletter, an informative digest with articles written by AILA members.