Blog: Kurt Metzger

A celebrity demographer if there ever was one, Kurt Metzger, director of the Detroit Area Community Indicators System, is the go-to-guru for the latest trends in population flow. This week, Kurt holds forth on the importance of immigration to the region's vitality, right-sizing the city, and neighborhoods of opportunity.

Post 1 - Immigrants: Their Importance to the Region's Past, Present, and Future

A brief History of Immigration in Southeast Michigan

Southeast Michigan (defined as the three-county region of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne) contained just 187,521 persons in 1870, with more than 4 in 10 living within the limits of the City of Detroit 1.   The foreign born population constituted 32 percent of the total.  The Detroit area followed the national trend of newly arrived immigrants starting out in the central city, achieving financial success and then moving to the suburbs.  This is demonstrated by the fact that immigrants constituted a greater share of Detroit's population, and Detroit accounted for 59 percent of the region's foreign-born population, but only 42 percent of total population. (Table 1)

Table 1.  Foreign-Born Population in Southeast Michigan, 1870 - 2000

Year  Tri County   Foreign  % Foreign   Detroit 
Foreign   % Foreign  Detroit     Detroit
         Total Pop.   Born      Born           Total      Born    Born          Share of   Share of
                          Pop.                       Pop.                                  Total       Foreign Born

1870    187,521     59,983    32.0%     79,577   35,381    44.5%    42.4%     59.0%
1880    239,608     74,702    31.2      116,340   45,645    39.2       48.6        61.1
1890    330,172    110,474   33.5      205,876   81,709    39.7       62.4        74.0
1900    426,829    125,313   29.4      285,704   96,503    33.8       66.9        77.0
1910    613,773    184,069   30.0      465,766  157,534   33.8       75.9        85.6
1920  1,305,798    363,229  27.8      993,678  290,884    29.3      76.1        80.1
1930  2,177,343    521,582  24.0    1,568,662  405,882   25.9      72.0        77.8
1940  2,377,329    436,086  18.3    1,623,452  322,688   19.9      68.3        74.0
1950  3,016,197    400,823  13.3    1,846,660  278,260   15.1      61.2        69.4
1960  3,762,360    364,575    9.7    1,670,144  201,713   12.1      44.4        55.3
1990  3,912,679     227,602   5.8    1,027,974    34,490    3.4      26.3        15.2
2000  4,043,467     325,994   8.1       951,270    45,541    4.8      23.5        14.0

The Arsenal of Democracy
The immigrant population was a great driver of the economic engine that was Detroit in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The "Arsenal of Democracy" that was Detroit, coupled with the growing auto industry, made jobs plentiful and brought migrants from overseas and across the United States.  By 1930, the foreign born population numbered more than half a million and accounted for almost one of every four area residents.  The City of Detroit was growing as the center of this region, now accounting for 72 percent of all residents and 78 percent of foreign-born residents.

Migration streams changed after 1930 and, while the area continued to grow rather rapidly, the immigrant population began to decrease both numerically and as a share of the total.  Detroit still contained the majority of immigrants, though that position was changing rapidly as well.

Population dynamics continued to work against the immigrant population, as their numbers decreased.  The 1960 Census revealed that, for the first time, foreign-born residents were less than 10 percent of the total.  This was a pivotal time for the City of Detroit as well, with 1950 marking the pinnacle of population, and post-World War II housing and transportation policies driving suburban growth.  Due to restrictive covenants, the African-American population of Detroit was not able to relocate, so whites dominated out-migration – many foreign-born.  These trends continued until 1990, with the city's population dropping and the foreign-born population of the region decreasing to a number that had not been seen since the period between 1910 and 1920, and representing just 5.8% of the region's total.

The immigration trends that the nation experienced during the 1990s had a large impact on Southeast Michigan as well.  At no time since the beginning of the previous century did immigration play such an important role in the region's demographic structure 2.  The 2000 Census enumerated a growth in the foreign-born population of almost 100,000 persons, which, by the way, represented almost the entirety of total population growth during the decade.  For the first time since 1910 the share of the region's population that was foreign-born actually increased – up to 8.1 percent.  This was true for the City of Detroit as well.

The decade of the 1990s represented the period of entry for 44 percent of the region's total foreign-born and 57 percent of Detroit's.  Leading the list of countries of origin for the region were – India, China, Iraq, Egypt, Thailand, Albania, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and others.  The Asian subcontinent, the Middle East, Mexico, Central and South American, and Eastern Europe provided the major streams.

Immigration – Present and Future – What it Means to Metro Detroit

While the country has wrestled with immigration, particularly since 9/11, southeast Michigan has continued to see large numbers identifying the area as their intended place of residence.  An analysis of immigration data from the Office of Homeland Security shows that the region has received an average of 13,421 immigrants per year between 2001 and 2006. 

The primary countries of origin reflect the base populations that already call the Detroit area home – Iraq, India, Albania, Yemen, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Mexico, China, Philippines, and Romania.  While this only measures direct immigration, we know that an even larger number of foreign-born residents come to us in secondary streams from other parts of the country.  These continuing streams are extremely important for a region that has witnessed an ever growing increase in the outmigration of our native-born population.

In addition to the rich diversity that immigrants bring to the region – a diversity of culture, foods, religion, etc. – their economic contributions are even more critical to our continued strength.  Immigrants bring with them an entrepreneurial spirit that is driving the redevelopment of neighborhoods such as southwest Detroit, East Dearborn, Hamtramck and much more.  Not only is this entrepreneurism marked by new restaurants, grocery stores and other independent retail and service businesses, but it is also estimated that immigrants account for one-third of all new technology company startups in southeast Michigan.

While immigrants to the region tend to vary a great deal in their level of education, their overall level of college attainment well surpasses that of our general population.  This is extremely important to a region and state that recognizes the need to grow our educated workforce in order to compete with regions and states for business attraction and development.

Recent studies have attempted to document the regional contributions of Arabs, Chaldeans and Hispanics/Latinos as a way of letting the general public know how integral they are to our future. The region is home to large concentrations of immigrants from many of the strongest economies in the world. In addition, our universities attract the best and brightest from throughout the world.  Acknowledging the links we have and using them to attract population and business development is critical.

National discussions on immigration reform have shown a great divergence of opinion on how to address the current state of undocumented residents and whether immigration limits need to be instituted.  Politicians and individual citizens throughout Michigan need to stay on top of the issues, and work to make Detroit and our region an immigrant magnet once again.   

1 The City of Detroit did not encompass its current boundaries, and size of 139 square miles, until 1926.

2  The City of Hamtramck provides a perfect example of this shift.  Developed as a Polish community, Hamtramck had been experiencing population decline from 1940 to 1990.  Between 1990 and 2000 the trend was reversed and Hamtramck’s population grew by 25 percent.  Rather Yemeni, Bosnians, Serbs, Bangladeshi and more did not drive by Poles but this growth.