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Economics of Immigration on Display in Detroit


Bangladeshi immigrant Shaker Sadeak moved to Michigan from New York in 2001 to seek greater economic opportunities. Today, he owns India Fashion fabric shop along Conant Street.

At the turn of the century, Bangladeshi immigrant Shaker Sadeak packed his bags in New York City and headed to Michigan -- a state that he says afforded him the opportunity to make a living and go to school at the same time.

Seven years later, he took another step, opening his own wholesale and retail fabric shop, India Fashion, in Hamtramck, Michigan's Banglatown. Surrounded by Bengali restaurants, spice shops and groceries, his business, like the street upon which it lives, has flourished over time.

When VOA visited this summer, new and established businesses were steadily replacing abandoned lots along Conant Street, Banglatown's commercial main street.

"Back in 2000, you used to see one car in two minutes. Now we have thousands of cars driving on the streets," Sadeak said. "All the immigrants came into this town and rebuilt the whole thing."

The city of Hamtramck, Michigan, surrounded by Detroit, is home to many immigrant neighborhoods, including Banglatown.
The city of Hamtramck, Michigan, surrounded by Detroit, is home to many immigrant neighborhoods, including Banglatown.

The city of Hamtramck, Michigan, surrounded by Detroit, is home to many immigrant neighborhoods, including Banglatown.

'Bread and butter' issue

In Rust Belt communities, immigration is a "bread and butter economic issue," said Steve Tobocman, executive director of Global Detroit, a nonprofit corporation that pursues strategies to attract international investment and business in southeast Michigan.

Most economists view legal immigration as an overall net benefit to communities and businesses, but the arrival of newcomers can displace some workers, leaving them out of a job or lowering wages.

The Trump administration argues that low-skilled or illegal immigrants in particular are hurting Americans.

Last month, Stephen Miller, President Donald Trump's senior adviser for policy, told reporters that the administration plans to take steps to prevent an influx of such workers into the country.

Employees tend to customers at Aladdin Sweets & Cafe in Banglatown, Hamtramck, Michigan.
Employees tend to customers at Aladdin Sweets & Cafe in Banglatown, Hamtramck, Michigan.

"In an environment in which you have this huge pool of unemployed labor in the United States, you're spending massive amounts of money putting our own workers on welfare?" Miller asked.

Michigan’s state government has largely taken the opposite view, arguing that immigrants play a key role in a state that has struggled with the decline of the U.S. auto industry. A state report argued that even undocumented workers who paid back taxes could be beneficial to local businesses.

Michigan had the nation’s worst unemployment rate in 2009, but that has been improving in years since. The state’s rate now beats the U.S. national average.

During that time of improving job growth, the state’s foreign-born population rose by 10.2 percent.

Still, some state lawmakers like Republican Peter Lucido say those numbers don’t settle the argument over whether the state should embrace attracting immigrants as an economic strategy. He said other factors are important as well, in particular the fact that undocumented immigrants are breaking the law.

WATCH: A look at Hamtramck

“I don't believe that economics should drive how the forces of immigration work. Watch this, if we have laws and we have lawmakers that put these laws into place, what good are these laws if we are going to say, ‘break the law, and just look purely at economics?’”

To Lucido, the country is in “chaos” following an influx of undocumented immigrants and re-establishing the rule of law is a greater priority than boosting the economy.

“There are millions of people in this country that were not vetted out,” he told VOA, “We are having troubles and struggles every day from all kinds of crises, that may have been eliminated if we followed the rules.”

Michigan, an immigrant magnet

Like other Midwestern states, Michigan’s population in many cities has been in decline, particularly in Detroit.

Kim Rueben, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel that produced a comprehensive 2016 report on the long-term impacts of immigration on native-born workers, said immigrants are an important part of keeping such communities vibrant.

Staff at immigrant-owned restaurant Taquería Mi Pueblo prepare food in Detroit’s Mexicantown.
Staff at immigrant-owned restaurant Taquería Mi Pueblo prepare food in Detroit’s Mexicantown.

The report she produced indicated that that over a period of 10 years or more, the impact of immigration on the wages of native-born workers was small and there's little evidence it affects the overall employment levels of U.S.-born workers.

She maintains any decision to cut immigration numbers, is both economically and fiscally costly.

Immigration policy

But as the U.S. debates its national immigration policy, those numbers are not the only consideration.

Michigan lawmaker Lucido concedes that the economic impact of reducing immigration remains unclear, but he says tightening policies and enforcing immigration laws are beneficial on their own.

“Nobody knows how the effect will take place, if it's positive or negative. We just to know this: curbing and deciding to keep things in perspective is in the best interests of the country.”

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