The Midwest needs immigrants

Saturday, January 29, 2011

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Obama demanded that we "stop expelling talented, responsible young people," people we've educated, because of irrational immigration policies. This sort of immigration reform should be obvious, particularly in the part of the country that stands to benefit most from more immigration - the politically crucial Midwest.

You wouldn't know it, though, from some of the politicians the region produces. See former Minnesota governor - and possible 2012 presidential contender - Tim Pawlenty. For a Republican, he's relatively moderate on the issue. He was the only prominent GOP presidential aspirant to speak at a recent meeting of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network. Yet his views are hardly moderate at all: Pawlenty has advocated fining or jailing business owners who employ undocumented immigrants. He's even suggested amending the Constitution to repeal birthright citizenship.

This approach to immigration policy could be disastrous for a region already suffering from economic hardship. The Midwest needs more immigrants - not fewer.

Ask John C. Austin, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and president of the Michigan State Board of Education. "The economically most vibrant big Midwest communities - specifically Chicago and the Twin Cities in Minnesota - are in part that way because of dynamic immigration inflows."

There are data to back his claims. The Midwestern cities that are surviving - and thriving - in the 21st-century economy are those with high percentages of immigrants. Between 18 percent and 22 percent of the residents of the Chicago metro area are foreign-born. Pawlenty aside, leaders in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area have been reaching out to attract immigrants for years (8.7 percent foreign-born). Meanwhile, cities without robust immigrant communities struggle. Only 4 to 5 percent of Cleveland residents are immigrants. Author Richard C. Longworth quotes Ronn Richard, president of the Cleveland Foundation, as lamenting, "We even have a hard time attracting illegal immigrants." No wonder that Cleveland is opening an immigrant welcome center. (It's not just because Lebron James shattered Clevelanders' faith in exclusive reliance on locally grown talent.)

Meanwhile, Detroit (8.3 percent of its residents foreign-born) isn't waiting around to see whether it needs more immigrants. The recent "Global Detroit Study" concluded that "southeast Michigan's foreign-born residents provide enormous contributions to the region's economic growth and will play a key role in our economic future." The area's immigrants produce "130 percent more of regional economic output than [their] overall share of the regional population." Immigrants are a key resource in the region.

Some Republicans, like new Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, are recognizing how critical immigrants are to the nation's economy. In his "State of the State" address, Snyder said, "Immigration made us a great state and a great country; it's time we embrace this concept as a way to speed our reinvention."

Immigration invigorates the U.S. economy from top to bottom. Immigrants value education and economic innovation: In southeast Michigan, they are much more likely to have a college degree than non-immigrants. Immigrants help start around 25 percent of new high-tech American companies. As Austin puts it, "Slamming the door on immigrants pushes away the very talent and entrepreneurs the region's metro areas need to remake their economies, and the 'warm bodies' needed to reverse decades of relative population decline and loss of political clout." Bottom line: The Midwest can't survive without immigrants.

The nation's heartland can't afford any more partisan gamesmanship on immigration policy. Millions of Midwestern jobs are at stake. Winning a better future, to paraphrase Obama's speech, depends on policymakers taking the president's call to action on illegal immigration seriously. So, too, might Midwestern politicians' political futures, as attitudes about immigration inevitably change across the region.

Conor Williams won readers' votes for America's Next Great Pundit 2010. He can be reached at punditconor@gmail.com.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company