How to make metro Detroit a destination, not a point of departure, for foreign-born talent

Southeast Michigan has the second largest number of foreign-born residents in the Midwest. They are mostly well-educated, or pursuing a college degree, and plan to establish businesses or find professional positions in the automotive, life sciences, and emerging technology sector.

But will they stay here? The answer may be as simple as family and friends.

Like immigrants before them, those who move to the region come here for opportunity, but just as likely have come to be with family from their culture. Anand Kumar, born in India, came to the region 22 years ago with credentials as a certified public accountant because of opportunity and family living in Grosse Isle. He stayed because of friends -- most of whom are from other cultures -- education, and opportunity in the financial field. 

Samir Al-Arami emigrated from Yemen in 2011 to be with the family of his wife. He counsels foreign-born students as a navigator at Macomb County Community College. For him,  America is the land of opportunity as imagined by immigrants throughout American history. It is also about being with his extended family in a culturally cohesive enclave, Hamtramck.

Many of the students he works with talk about getting their degree and starting a business, presumably in the region. But it’s not clear whether they will stay.

Metro Detroit has been a destination for Indians, Yemenis, Iraqi Chaldeans, Albanians, Mexicans, even Canadians, in recent years according to Global Detroit

Most people don’t think of the region as a destination for immigrants, says Steve Tobocman, director of Global Detroit.  Five to 15 percent of the population in every census tract of Southeast Michigan is foreign born. Unlike other cities, where immigrant groups are clustered in enclaves like “Chinatown,” Metro Detroit’s immigrant population is diffuse, almost immediately assimilated into the region’s culture.

There are positive and negative aspects of the dispersed nature of the region’s diversity. While most people identify with East Dearborn as the center of the Middle Eastern community and Mexicantown in Detroit, there isn’t a focal point for the Indian community, or the Albanians, Macedonians, Southeast Asians, and Canadians. Where do you go for an authentic ethnic meal or cultural festival? Without that cultural identity as a community magnet, some see it as a reason why younger, subsequent generations leave Michigan at about the same rate as their non-immigrant neighbors.
Metro Detroit as a region competes very well for immigrants, particularly for a midwest region. Its population has the second largest number of people born in a foreign country among metropolitan areas. “If you eliminate Detroit from the equation, Out-Wayne, Macomb, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties are all between 9 and 11 percent foreign born -- pretty close to the national average.
“Immigration is robust but it’s very diverse, very diffuse.” If you did a windshield survey of Metro Detroit “You could probably drive all day and might find Hamtramck or East Dearborn, but you’ll likely not find anything else. You could drive through immigrant-heavy communities and you wouldn’t even know.”
The students that Al-Arami counsels at Macomb Community College are typical of the immigrants coming to the area. That will help ease the pressures of the rapidly aging population. Tobocman says this is “an important public policy opportunity. We are an aging state and region that will have real problems in our workforce and tax base if we don’t get younger or we don’t slow the aging process. Immigration is a great opportunity to do that.” Twenty percent of the 2013 graduating class of the college spoke a language other than English in their household.
Macomb County has positioned itself as a nexus for immigrant settlement. It is the state’s only county to join the nationwide collaboration Welcoming Cities and Counties, promoting quality of life and economic potential for immigrants. The county’s government has established “One Macomb,” campaign  fostering multiculturalism and economic development by promoting entrepreneurism and recruiting foreign businesses. It's estimated that nearly 100 foreign languages are spoken by residents of the county.
Jim Jacobs, PhD, president of Macomb Community College, in a recent article wrote that “unlike previous generations of immigrants to Macomb County (many of whom are the grandparents of current Macomb residents) the new American settlers in our county are often highly educated, having left their home nation as professionals with developed, transferable skills.” 

The college collaborated with county officials on publishing The New Macomb County report, which examines the changing demographics of the county.
The students Al-Arami work with tell him they came first to America, and then to be with family. He came to Michigan in 2011 to be with his wife and her family in Hamtramck. For him, it’s as much a destination as a point of departure.
Tobocman helped establish the Global Talent Retention (GTR) Initiative of Michigan, to encourage young, foreign-born talent to stay after graduation and establish their careers in the region. 32 colleges and universities in Michigan are partners with the program, which recently held a conference in Detroit. 60 businesses are affiliated with the program as well. 
“These are the world’s top talent,” Tobocman says. “Even though this region has struggled economically, like everywhere else in the world there are shortages in talent. It’s hard to find engineers, IT staffing, yet these international students make up 40 to 50 percent of the masters and PhD programs in engineering, life sciences, computer sciences.”
Michigan ranks third in the nation for the percentage of high tech firms started by immigrants, causing the GTR to focus on these areas. Nearly 33 percent of Michigan high tech firms have an immigrant founder or co-founder, which places it third behind New Jersey and California. This, Tobocman says, “is remarkable because we are a low immigration state.”
There’s somewhat of a lag time between an immigrant’s arrival and the establishment of a high tech business. “The average high tech entrepreneur started their business 13 years after they came to the U.S. and the reason they came to the U.S. was to get an education.” That’s a long time from graduation to start-up -- time that immigrants may spend exploring options in other states.
Family and social networks may be as valuable as other incentives to keep immigrants connected with this place and its assets. Many immigrants like Kumar, come to be with family. And they find that a “welcoming” culture is important.
Founder of, a resource site for Indian Americans and member of the original Global Detroit Advisory Committee, Kumar lives in Canton. He came to be with family but found a “friendly culture” as well. He developed many friendships with people, most of whom are not Indian. That, he says, is the “single, most important” reason he stayed here. 

“I never once felt I didn’t belong here;" he says. "This is a great place to raise a family and educate your kids. Culturally, there are a lot of activities. There are a lot of temples in the area. There are really top-notch schools.”
Despite these assets, “quite a few” young Indians leave the region, primarily to pursue careers in the non-automotive technology and financial fields, he adds.
While there are several strategies for persuading foreign-born talent to remain in the region, there is one thing you can’t do anything about, he says, “the weather.”
Just as America remains a land of opportunity for immigrants, communities and counties need to view immigrants as an opportunity for renewal and growth.
Although optimistic for the prospects of the region, Al-Arami says that America is really “50 countries” -- all vying for these new, vital populations.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to metromode and Model D.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography