A family walks past an ethnic grocery store in Dearborn, Michigan—Photo by Plaubel Makina, Flickr Creative Commons.

By Bret Schafer

Since 2009, Steve Tobocman has spearheaded Global Detroit, a regional economic revitalization strategy for the Detroit area focused on immigration. He also created and leads the We Global Welcoming Economies (WE) Global Network at Welcoming America. This first-of-its-kind, ten-state regional network of local immigrant economic development initiatives is helping to make the Rust Belt a leader in immigrant innovation. Public Diplomacy Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Bret Schafer, e-mailed with Steve to discuss the importance of local initiatives to attract and maintain immigrants, particularly in the face of a less hospitable immigration climate at the national level.

PD Magazine: Can you briefly describe the mission of the WE Global Network?

Steve Tobocman: The mission of the Welcoming Economies (WE) Global Network is to strengthen the work, maximize the impact, and sustain the efforts of local economic and community development initiatives across the region that welcome, retain, and empower immigrant communities as valued contributors to the region’s shared prosperity. The Network consists of over 20 “core” economic development initiatives across a 10-state region from St. Louis to Syracuse and their supporters. WE Global and its members embrace the following Core Values:

Immigrant communities are central to expanding economic opportunity and revitalizing the entire region.

Welcoming immigrants into the economic and social fabric of a region helps to make that region more socially vibrant for everyone.

Regional economic development initiatives can play a role not just in attracting immigrants, but also in retaining them and in enhancing their role in the community’s economic and social fabric.

Philadelphia, for example, has shown the positive economic and social impacts of being a welcoming city. Immigrants there have significantly contributed to the reversal of a 60-year population decline, and since 2000 are responsible for 96 percent of small business growth and 75 percent of workforce growth. Policies that break down barriers for immigrants also do so for other residents as well. Other cities have modeled programs after some of those in Philadelphia, such as a hub that helps entrepreneurs transform an idea into a feasible business opportunity.

Where did the idea for immigrant economic development initiatives start? At what point was the decision made to create a network that would allow various cities and regions to share best practices and experiences?

Between 2010 and 2013, no fewer than eight (Detroit, Dayton, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Chicago, Macomb County, and the state of Michigan) Rust Belt initiatives focusing on immigrants as a source of community revitalization and economic growth were launched independently and developed their own unique vision and programming.

These efforts began to connect via other networks and discussions, and, in 2013, Global Detroit sought and secured funds to bring 11 of these programs together for a public conference and structured an internal conversation about the possibilities that collaborating might bring. In 2014, Global Detroit worked with Vibrant Pittsburgh, GlobalPittsburgh, and Welcoming America to create a second convening modeled on the first. Some 18 local initiatives and 225 attendees participated. At that second convening, the group agreed to ask Welcoming America to lead the emerging network in partnership with Global Detroit. In April 2015, the Welcoming Economies Global Network was launched. Additional convenings have been held in Dayton and Philadelphia, each attracting over 300 attendees, and the Network has grown to over 20 core members. WE Global also hosts joint days of action to facilitate multi-city communications on topics like Welcoming Week, Immigrant Heritage Month, annual H-1B application closing, and more; has published Ideas that Innovate to chronicle promising public policy practices that impact the field; and has engaged in original research on immigrant housing potential in Rust Belt cities. WE Global also has facilitated and underwritten about a dozen city-to-city peer learning exchanges to build mutual understanding among initiatives.

Other than geographic location, what are some of the characteristics shared by the cities or regions that compose the Network?  

Immigration experienced by Rust Belt metros is somewhat unique among the American immigration experience. Rust Belt metros benefit from a highly-educated and affluent immigrant population. In states like Michigan and Ohio, adult immigrants are approximately twice as likely to posses a four-year college degree than the overall population. A deep analysis of immigrant labor in the nation’s largest metros in 2009 by the Fiscal Policy Institute noted that most Rust Belt cities in the study possessed immigrant households with substantially higher earning power than other households in the metro (between 125% and 150% of the overall population).

Rust Belt metros also tend to have immigration rates lower than the national average and have regional economic growth rates that are more sluggish than the rest of the nation.

Given that these cities and regions are all vying for new immigrants, is there a sense of competition between and among cities in the Network? How much emphasis do cities place on creating unique brands that are attractive to new arrivals?

There is not a deep sense of competition for a limited pool of immigrants. Immigrants are hardly choosing their migration patterns based upon the offerings of local immigrant economic development strategies, but are extremely more likely to make migration decisions based upon family ties, work opportunities, and a desire to be located among other immigrant residents from one’s home country and region. While St. Louis attracts large numbers of Bosnians, Dayton attracts the Ahiska minority from Turkey. Detroit has large numbers of Chaldean Iraqis, Bangladeshi, and Indians. Columbus is home to large numbers of Somalis.

That said, each program desires to be the best it can be and there is a sense of friendly competition to excel, but each participant believes there is far more to be gained from collaborative learning than from a more traditional sense of competition. After all, these are very innovative and pioneering programs, few of which existed even seven years ago.

Obviously, many Rust Belt communities are experiencing declining or slow population growth and would economically benefit from an infusion of new residents, but for the native-born populations of those areas, who may be unemployed or underemployed, how do you combat the notion that new immigrants will take their jobs, or that resources should be spent on them rather than new arrivals?

Economies are not fixed, zero-sum entities. There is not a finite supply of jobs. Adding population to a local economy creates more economic activity and more jobs. Developed economies like Japan and Europe that have stagnant population growth or regions that lose population—including many Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland—experience unemployment and economic distress.

No American city has been able to stabilize population loss or reverse such loss without significant immigration growth. From New York City to Boston to Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia and Minneapolis/St. Paul, American cities that saw population loss and rebounded have depended upon immigration as a means to revive their economies.

Resources should be spent on the unemployed and under-employed. None of the cities in the WE Global Network are offering specific tax incentives or benefits for immigrants. Instead, they are seeking to expand the opportunities for workforce development, housing, and entrepreneurship to include immigrant groups—often with limited English language proficiency. Moreover, programs like ProsperUS Detroit and the Neighborhood Development Center in Minneapolis/St. Paul provide services to immigrants and African-Americans. ProsperUS Detroit, the largest program to emerge from the Global Detroit strategy, is a micro-enterprise training, lending, and support effort that has graduated 640 low-income Detroit residents from a rigorous 20-week business planning program and lent some $750,000 in micro-loans to approximately 50 Detroit entrepreneurs. Eighty five percent of the graduates of the ProsperUS training are African-American.

These initiatives are not about choosing between immigrants and U.S.-born citizens, but are striving to find ways to serve both communities and to revitalize neighborhoods and create economic opportunities that serve all residents. In fact, many WE Global programs include specific programs to foster cross-cultural dialogue and understanding to build stronger neighbor-to-neighbor relations.

For the organizations in the Network, what’s the bigger challenge: convincing immigrants to migrate to economically depressed cities, or convincing residents of those cities that immigrants will be a benefit to their community? 

The question presupposes that these things are a challenge. Immigrants are moving to Rust Belt cities and metros and most of the regions are experiencing immigration growth over the last five years at rates stronger than the national average. Few, if any, of the WE Global members are experiencing any form of organized opposition to their efforts and, in fact, the vast majority enjoy support from their local mayors, city councils, county commissions, and other elected officials. In fact, the most anti-immigrant voters in America are those who live in regions without immigrants, while those with immigrants tend to have far less opposition.

What tools do you use to try to attract immigrants to new communities, particularly those that do not have large immigrant populations?  

In short, most programs focus on immigrants already present in their communities as the prime method for attracting and growing their immigrant populations. Making existing residents feel welcome, addressing their needs and concerns, and linking them with asset-building opportunities (entrepreneurship, career development, homeownership, etc.) can help immigrant communities thrive and be a source for attracting newcomers.

Most initiatives working to serve immigrant populations realize that their community possesses a variety of asset-building and service opportunities, but they often find immigrants shut out of these programs and services because of language and cultural barriers. Often the solution that an initiative pursues is to make existing programs linguistically accessible and culturally competent. Sometimes that involves developing a new initiative, while at other times it simply means altering the delivery mechanism of existing programs.

What role do private corporations and educational and cultural institutions play in that process?

The most profound and lasting impacts that a local immigrant economic development initiative can have often involves working with existing institutions in the private, public, and nonprofit sector in their region to make these organizations more inclusive of immigrants. For example, Global Detroit’s international student retention program (the Global Talent Retention Initiative of Michigan) and the state of Michigan’s skilled immigrant integration initiative (Michigan International Talent Solutions) work to educate private sector employers about the talent pools that international students and underemployed college educated immigrants represent and the value of hiring these immigrants. Similar efforts are being employed by the St. Louis Mosaic Project and are being discussed in the state of Ohio’s Chancellors Office. (For example, over 70 percent of the masters and Ph.D. students in the United States in electrical engineering are international students—these talent pools can be quite deep and vast.)

Colleges and universities are a critical component for those programs operating international student programs. International students now represent about 5 percent of all college and university students in America and provide some $32.8 billion annually to the U.S. economy in the form of tuition, room and board, and local spending. More importantly, however, international students predominate the STEM fields and amount to 40 to 70 percent of the graduate students in the United States in most STEM disciplines. Educating employers about the legal pathways to hire these students and connecting them to this talent represents a largely untapped talent strategy. Additionally, many local immigrant economic development programs work with their community college systems to create workforce skills development through ESL, GED, and credentialing and education opportunities targeting immigrants.

How much of an effort is made to connect new arrivals to diaspora networks in the Midwest, such as the Bosnian community in St. Louis or the Arab-American community in Detroit?  

Several initiatives have recognized that diaspora networks represent a significant opportunity to help their community develop and grow foreign direct investment and international trade opportunities. St. Louis Mosaic Project is a regional initiative within the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and the World Trade Center St. Louis. It helps connect foreign investment opportunities with the local diaspora community, as well as to help integrate foreign nationals who are part of a foreign investment into the local community.

There is strong evidence that diaspora communities help grow a region’s foreign investment and trade. Yet, formalized economic development initiatives that leverage these opportunities are just getting underway. WE Global members are well poised to help their local economic development, foreign investment, and trade initiatives to connect with the diaspora communities within their region.

During the 2016 election, the Rust Belt was a region where an anti-globalization message resonated with voters. As an organization that focuses on bringing immigrants into the region, have you seen any change, positively or negatively, in the wake of the election?

As previously mentioned, immigrants are moving to Rust Belt cities and metros and most of the regions are experiencing immigration growth over the last five years at rates stronger than the national average. Few, if any, of the WE Global members are experiencing any form of organized opposition to their efforts and, in fact, the vast majority enjoy support from their local mayors, city councils, county commissions, and other elected officials.

Certainly, there are some who believe that immigrants are destroying America and taking jobs away (something that is suggested by the fact that Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania voted for Trump when they had supported Democratic presidential candidates in the past). But those statewide votes represent a large margin of difference between votes from suburban and rural areas compared to urban and inner ring suburbs. Moreover, many may feel that federal immigration and homeland security laws need to be reformed, but have a more positive feeling about new immigrant neighbors in their community.

In fact, most WE Global members report experiencing increased numbers of donors since the first travel ban Executive Order, as well as increased media attention. Little of it has been negative towards the immigrant economic development agenda.

In today’s political climate, has there been any pushback at the state or federal levels to immigrant-friendly policies initiated at the local level? Has it become more difficult to convince immigrants that America is an inclusive nation?  

The election and the federal policies sought through Executive Orders—as well as the various leaked draft orders and media coverage of the Trump administration and the current Congress—have made America a less welcoming place and this has had a negative impact on local economies. Early survey research indicates that international student applications to U.S. universities are down 40 percent, while anecdotally the numbers are much greater. (Again, this is a $32.8 billion annual export product of the United States). International tourism declines are estimated to cost the U.S. economy another $18 billion.

In Detroit, there have been incidents where a recent startup company has paused its launch while the Muslim immigrant owner considers the viability of moving his family to Canada. Local realtors have reported that immigrant professionals have walked away from home purchases—deciding that returning to their home countries was a better pathway than pursuing a life in America post-Trump.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

The Welcoming Economies Global Network represents some of the most innovative and important economic and community development initiatives in America. Its members have come to the shared belief that immigrants can help power Rust Belt cities and economies and have developed insights and innovative programs independently, only to later realize that other communities are pursuing similar efforts. The Network is at the forefront of some of the most creative and impactful programs to revitalize urban neighborhoods and spark regional growth.

Steve Tobocman has spearheaded Global Detroit since 2009 and has played a leadership role in creating, growing, and managing the Welcoming Economies (WE) Global Network at Welcoming America. For the past 20 years, Steve has launched innovative nonprofit enterprises in community development, economic development, politics, and other arenas. In addition to his leadership in the nonprofit sphere, from 2003-2008, Steve served as a State Representative from Detroit and ended his term as the Majority Floor Leader, the second-ranking position in the Michigan House of Representatives.