Global Detroit Pushes Back on Trump’s Latest Immigration Proposals

President Donald Trump’s demand for more than $5 billion in budget appropriations to build a wall along the southern border of the United States—and congressional Democrats’ refusal to allocate that money—recently sparked the longest partial shutdown of the federal government in the nation’s history.

That shutdown is now in temporary reprieve until mid-February, theoretically to allow the two opposing sides more time to compromise. But after that deadline passes, many pundits expect the shutdown to start anew or that Trump will use emergency powers to get the wall built.

For people like Steve Tobocman, director of the pro-immigration nonprofit Global Detroit, these are uncertain times.

“The United States, for its entire history, has relied on immigration as the primary source of population growth, and it has also fueled economic growth,” he says. He feels the Trump administration’s immigration reform measures, rather than being a constructive overhaul of a notoriously overburdened system, are motivated “by a fear of changing demographics and social engineering. People are nervous, angry, and fearful,” he adds.

Global Detroit has historically been an organization that focused on business development and economic growth opportunities for Michigan’s immigrant population, but that changed in early 2017, shortly after Trump’s attempted ban on refugees from certain countries was announced.

“We were contacted by several business groups concerned with how Trump was guiding the country from a business and economic perspective, not a social justice perspective,” says Tobocman, a former Democratic member of the Michigan House of Representatives. (In the interest of disclosure, I also worked for the Michigan House while he was there.) “They asked us to help leverage our voice.”

Business organizations in general tend to produce more “sober reflection” about the immigration issue than political groups, Tobocman notes. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which works to promote business interests, doesn’t have a recent statement on its website indicating its stance on immigration reform. However, a statement posted in September 2000 says, “The Michigan Chamber of Commerce supports reform of national immigration laws to allow foreign-born, highly skilled professionals increased access to job opportunities in the United States. [We believe] such reform is necessary as part of a comprehensive strategy to address existing workforce shortages, especially in technology dependent businesses and industry, and that such legislation should provide maximum flexibility in hiring without increasing the regulatory burden for job providers.”

After being approached by business groups in 2017, Global Detroit created the Champions for Growth campaign, which allows local business and community leaders to “highlight awareness of immigrants’ economic contributions, oppose weakening of existing immigration laws, and build stronger regional policies” by signing an online pledge.

The Champions for Growth page lays out some stark statistics: According to census data, all of the population growth in Michigan since 2010 has been due to immigrants. (The immigrant population in the Great Lakes State increased by 64,000 during that time, reflecting a greater than 10 percent growth rate in five years, but was offset some by a decline in the state’s U.S.-born population, which dropped by 19,000 over the same period.)

Immigrants have also been a stabilizing force in Detroit. Between 2010 and 2014, Detroit lost 5.3 percent of its U.S.-born residents, but saw the immigrant population increase by 12.7 percent. Tobocman points out that some of Michigan’s biggest business sectors—agriculture, construction, and hospitality among them—rely on immigrant labor to thrive.

However, Michigan also relies on highly skilled immigrants to augment its tech and STEM workforce. Global Detroit has a few more statistics: International students and faculty had a role in more than 70 percent of the patents produced by the University of Michigan and nearly 75 percent of patents from the country’s top research universities. International students contribute more than $1.1 billion in spending to Michigan’s economy and are responsible for creating 13,722 direct jobs. Thirty percent of Michigan’s doctors are immigrants; so are 28 percent of software developers and 22 percent of mechanical engineers.

Given these statistics and the success of the Champions for Growth initiative, Global Detroit embarked on a second campaign, this time to raise awareness of a federal rule change proposed at the end of 2018, which Tobocman says would devastate the nation’s immigrant workforce and harm the economy.

Significantly broadening a rarely used part of immigration law known as the “public charge,” Tobocman says the rule change would allow the Trump administration to deny legal entry and change-in-status requests for an estimated 22 million legal immigrants and nearly 9 million of their U.S.-born citizen children by requiring them to demonstrate that they will not, are not, nor expect to access public benefits like food stamps or Medicaid.

One of the Trump administration’s arguments in favor of the rule change, Tobocman says, is its belief that the poorest immigrants are draining the public treasury—a notion that Tobocman calls patently false.

“Even refugees who come without money or skills—even they contribute to federal budgets,” he says. “They don’t cause us to lose federal dollars.”

Tobocman sees a second rationale to the proposed change to the public charge rule that is not as explicitly stated: it would effectively curtail legal immigration by focusing more on skilled migrants, and limiting legal migrants to 500,000 people per year. He gives an example of a chilling scenario should the rule change pass: If a U.S.-born child of immigrants qualifies for and receives food stamps, their parents’ visas could be denied and they could then be deported.

“The Trump administration’s argument is that we need less immigration but need more skilled immigration,” Tobocman explains. “Global Detroit is typically not involved in federal policy issues, but our position is, immigrants with lower skills also benefit the country. There are labor shortages across the board” that they could help fill.

Tobocman says we have modern examples of what happens when developed countries experience stagnation, such as Japan’s “lost decade” in the 1990s, which caused significant reductions in Gross Domestic Product and wages.

“It’s our hope that the administration will pay particular attention to the economic impacts of the rule change,” Tobocman says. “I think some people respond to Trump’s immigration policies because of concerns about the economy. I don’t have a lot of cause for optimism, but I’m hopeful that Homeland Security will look at business and industry groups that filed comments with concerns about [the proposed rule change’s] economic impact.”

The Department of Homeland Security is currently going through the more than 210,000 public comments submitted in reaction to the proposed rule change—a process that has since closed. Once comments are processed, Tobocman says the federal government will address the rule change “in some official way.” Those who want further information on the public charge rule change are advised to contact the Department of Homeland Security.

“Having a rule change like this potentially closes the doors to anyone who is not upper middle class,” Tobocman maintains, adding that it also affects the ability of legal immigrants to bring their families with them. “This could change the face of our skilled immigrant workforce.

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