The plight of illegal immigrants

January 1, 2015

The words are inscribed on a plaque in the pedestal in the Statue of Liberty, once the first sight new immigrants to the United States glimpsed of our country: “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These iconic words from the poem “New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus have long epitomized the feelings of those settling in our country from foreign lands, and remain as relevant today as when they were first penned in 1883.

We’re a nation that’s a melting pot of countries, cultures, races and colors. Our ancestors arrived on these shores seeking financial opportunities, the freedom to practice their religion, fleeing economic hardship or brutal dictatorships and wars. Some, such as African Americans, were brought here as slaves against their will.

Fast forward to today. Those from other countries continue to flock to our borders, both legally and illegally. Whether seeking better opportunities and increased pay for highly skilled jobs, cash to fill hungry children’s bellies, or to escape intolerable situations in their native lands, the United States continues to be the country where others want to live, with thousands choosing metro Detroit as the place they want to make their home.

Seen from the other side of the mirror, immigration is actually economically advantageous to the communities where immigrants reside. Global Detroit, an organization which works to revitalize southeastern Michigan’s economy and a national leader in the emerging development field centered on welcoming, retaining and empowering immigrant communities as valued contributors to regional growth, notes that while metro Detroit has a lower immigrant rate, at 8 percent, than the national average of 13 percent, the area is still a global region, just as it has been historically since immigrants first swarmed here to work in the auto industry when Henry Ford offered workers $5 a day, a huge sum at the time.

“Our border with Canada, international supply chain routes, and global automotive industry have all helped attract a significantly large number of foreign companies, which...number at over 900 firms from over 35 countries,” Global Detroit states. “Simply put, there are hundreds of thousands of residents in the region who were born in another country. Metro Detroit is estimated to be the home of the largest concentration of Middle East migrants outside the Middle East – larger than New York, London or Paris...The foreign born are fairly evenly spread throughout the entire region, rather than living in specific clusters. The fact that the foreign-born are a part of nearly every community and neighborhood in southeast Michigan is extremely important to understand in light of the fact that the region scores highly on national rankings chronicling black-white segregation. We believe that the dispersion of foreign-born communities throughout the region contributes to a feeling of ‘invisibility’ among ethnic groups.”

Unlike other areas of the country, where those from Mexico and Central and South America comprise the largest groups of immigrants, the largest immigrant group in metro Detroit comes from India, with a majority of those immigrants residing in Oakland County. Those from India account for 11.5 percent of the foreign-born immigrants in metro Detroit, with a little over 20,000 immigrants in Oakland County out of a total population of 1.2 million residents. There are about 41,000 Indians living in metro Detroit. Many Asian Indians live in Novi, Farmington Hills, Bloomfield Township and Troy. Indian immigrants, in general, are highly-educated and highly skilled, particularly in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM, which are competitively sought after by employers. Additionally, Indians typically arrive here already able to speak and write in English, which gives them an advantage over other immigrant groups who have to learn the language. Many Indians arrive at our shores as students, seeking masters and doctorate degrees; many stay and work for local automotive and supply companies, engineering firms and other companies. 

But some have trouble attaining their “green card”, or permanent resident card through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or their H1-B visa, because of prioritization and tight regulations by Homeland Security, leading many to go “off the grid” and become undocumented workers. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are 150,000 undocumented residents living in Michigan, up from 25,000 in 1990, or a 500 percent increase. Approximately 90,000 of those workers are seasonal migrant farm workers. Statewide, undocumented workers are 2 percent of the workforce. Nationwide, it is 5.2 percent of the workforce.

“They’re undocumented so they’re living under the radar,” said Professor David Koelsch, an immigration law professor at University of Detroit Mercy law school. “Many undocumented Indians come on temporary visas or student visas and just stay (when their visas expire). Or the company they’re working for goes out of business. So they go to work for another tech start-up or a small mom-and-pop automotive supplier. They’re all up and down Big Beaver in Troy, within shooting distance of Somerset Mall. They have a higher skill level and compensation level than many other immigrants.”

But they are still illegal, or undocumented, workers.

The second highest documented immigrant group in Oakland County comes from Iraq, with about 16,000 Iraqis living in Oakland County. Almost 10,000 Canadians reside in the county, with 7,300 Mexicans and Chinese, each, living in Oakland. Other immigrants in the county come from Japan, Germany, Korea, the Philippines and Russia.

“The ‘immigrant belt’ runs clearly through Oakland County, starting with Novi in the southwest and moving northeast through Farmington Hills, Bloomfield Township and into Troy, with sizable populations in other municipalities as well,” said a document from Global Detroit. “Communities to the northwest and southeast of this ‘crescent’ have considerably smaller concentrations. The Asian community is highly concentrated in this county, with significant numbers of Asian Indians, Chinese, Korean, Pakistani and Japanese residents. The Chaldean (Iraqi Christians) community has established strong ties in West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Township and Farmington Hills.”

Global Detroit, in a presentation to Oakland leadership this year, statistically showed that the rates of crime among immigrants is much lower than the population as a whole, with immigration incarceration rates one-fifth the rate of those who are born in the United States. More than 40 percent of current Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, and in 2011, 28 percent of small businesses were founded by immigrants, many in fast growing sectors of the economy, such as leisure and hospitality; transportation; health and social services; construction; and education. 

In the New Economy, immigrants created 25 percent of all high tech firms nationally between 1995 and 2005. Of those high tech firms, they created 52 percent of the Silicon Valley firms, and 32.8 percent of those created in Michigan and account for 25 percent of all venture-backed firms with public offerings. “In Michigan, immigrants have entrepreneurship rates three times those of native borns,” the presentation pointed out, with 64.4 percent of immigrants of working age, while only 50 percent of native born residents of working age. 

Many immigrants come to the U.S. and metro Detroit to be educated. Fifty percent of all new U.S. PhDs awarded in engineering are granted to immigrants; 45 percent of all new U.S. PhDs in life sciences, physical sciences and computer science; 40 percent of all new U.S. Masters degrees in computer science, physical sciences and engineering; and 25 percent of all practicing physicians in the U.S. are currently immigrants, according to Global Detroit. 

Of those immigrants residing in metro Detroit, close to 40 percent possess at least an undergraduate degree. “Those immigrants have given the Detroit metro area an incredible economic contribution,” Global Detroit asserts. “Not only is metro Detroit third in the nation (among the 25 largest metro areas) for immigrant contributions to the economy, but the immigrant community contributes more to local prosperity than almost any other.”

These educational statistics contrasts to a native-born population with educational attainment levels that include 11 percent with some high school education; 28 percent who have their high school diploma or GED; 33 percent having some college and/or an associate’s degree; 17 percent having attained a bachelor’s degree; and 11 percent with a graduate or professional degree.

“Oakland County is very diverse and more diverse than other immigrant communities around the county,” said Koelsch. “Both the documented and undocumented workers are very educated and more diverse ethnically and economically.”

“Metro Detroit has a powerful impact with highly-skilled, highly-educated, highly-entrepreneurial rates, more even than with non-immigrants, particularly in technological areas,” said Steve Tobocman, director of Global Detroit. “From a purely economic issue, there’s a pretty widespread agreement that it’s (immigration) a win-win for everyone. There is a pretty broad consensus among champions of commerce that immigration reform would be an economic incentive, allowing for more international students and skilled workers to become part of our economy. It would allow for a number of aspiring workers to join the economy – there are currently 11 million undocumented workers working for lower wages, and it would give the opportunity for those folks to come above ground and join the formal economy. It would be a very good thing because they have great entrepreneurship, they would invest in their businesses, and follow greater regulations.”

The Center for American Progress concurs. The organization believes the legalization of many undocumented immigrants, an initiative recently put forth with restrictions by President Barack Obama, would economically benefit Michigan and the country as a whole by creating a 10 percent increase in wages for illegal workers that would lead to $109 billion more in local, state and federal taxes. Their report said it would also create $392 billion extra in earning across the country. 

“I’m fairly conservative, but I recognize the dynamics on this issue,” said Koelsch. “It’s a weird dynamic because they take services, so they’re a drain on services, but very minimally. It’s very difficult to access any government service from the county or the state – both have clamped down on benefits. Their kids do take public education. But they contribute back so much. They rent apartments, shop at IKEA, their kids go to public schools, and there’s a huge benefit to that. In Oakland County, we’re grayer and older than the rest of the United States. We need more life blood. If we give these kids of undocumented workers a chance, we’re creating contributors in 20 years. 

“The reality is, if there wasn’t an economic reason for it (illegal immigration), it would exist,” Koelsch emphasized.

Upwardly Global, a resource for immigrants which acts as a bridge for immigrant professionals to help them reach their potential, notes that because immigrants want to establish a new life, they usually have a higher sense of job loyalty and dedication and lower employer workforce turnover costs. It also creates a larger tax base. “Employing immigrant job seekers in professional positions brings about a higher income tax base,” according to the organization.

Not everyone agrees. Republican National Committeeman and former Michigan Rep. Dave Agema of Grandville, a strong conservative, said that undocumented immigration costs Michiganders money, jobs and threatens national security. When he was a state representative, Agema introduced several bills that would have cracked down on undocumented immigrants, claiming they are a huge financial burden on public education, healthcare, welfare, jails and human services.

Immigration action taken in November 2014 by President Obama is changing the conversation, as well as the repercussions. His executive action on immigration policy offers legal reprieve to the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have lived in this country for at least five years, removing the threat of deportation and allowing many of them to apply and receive work permits. It also expands the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for young immigrants, under 30 years old, who arrived here as children to apply for deportation deferral and are now here legally. Immigrants older than 30 can now qualify, as well as more recent arrivals.

Everyone must reapply every three years. The executive action also includes a program to facilitate visas for people who invest in the U.S and who invest in science, technology, engineering and math – those desirable STEM – degrees.

The action will not expand visas to migrant workers, help parents of DACA immigrants – those referred to as Dreamers, nor does it offer access to the Affordable Care Act. It’s estimated it covers about 4 million of the 11 million undocumented workers in the country.

“ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has immediately started to screen individuals in our custody who may be affected by (the) executive actions. ICE will continue to focus its priorities on national security threats, convicted felons, gang members and recent illegal entrants. ICE officers have extensive experience conducting such screening, most recently in 2012 when Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was announced,” said Khaalid Walls, Northeast Regional Communications Director/spokesman for ICE. 

“From November 20 through November 29 of 2014, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations released 183 individuals from detention under prosecutorial discretion,” Walls said, indicating they were individuals no longer deemed a detention or deportation case once the executive action was in place. 

For individuals already in ICE custody, in order to enhance its ability to detain and remove those who pose a national security or public safety threat, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations are now proactively reviewing the cases of individuals in its custody. 

For Michigan and Ohio, which the Detroit office covers, ICE removed 1,841 immigration offenders in 2014, from January through June. In 2013, there were 3,279 deportations, and in 2012, 3,851. 

“One key point about the 2014 regional statistics is that approximately 70 percent of all removals from Michigan and Ohio were of convicted criminals, which represents a nearly 50 percent increase since 2008,” Walls said, when there were 2,151 deportations from the region. 

In 2013, the number one country where illegal immigrants were deported back to was Mexico, followed by Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Canada, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, India, Columbia and Albania rounded out the top 10, Walls said.

The Roby Law Firm in Royal Oak has been representing immigrants and companies with immigrants working for them since 1985, as well as assisting illegal immigrants. Principal Steve Roby points out that there are many industrial, automotive and manufacturing companies located in Michigan “who rely on foreign talent just as we rely on U.S. talent. They want the best they can find. We help companies find science, manufacturing and engineering talent. There are huge shortages for highly qualified positions for all kinds of companies,” Roby said.

The Partnership for a New American Economy’s recent report, “Closing Economic Windows: How H-1B Visa Denials Cost U.S.-Born Tech Workers Jobs and Wages During the Great Recession”, shows that existing H-1B visa lottery caps for high tech worker and students disproportionately hurt U.S. workers by depressing job and wage growth in more than 200 metropolitan areas. The report emphasizes that the technology industry would have grown substantially faster post-recession if so many H-1B visas had not been denied, leaving many companies without qualified workers. 

Roby works with companies, individuals and the government to procure work and permanent visas for immigrants, assist spouses in immigration and/or travel issues, immigration compliance assurance, expatriate administration and strategies, and language assistance, with Steve fluent in Spanish, and other lawyers fluent in German and French. 

Besides the firm’s work with corporations and compliance, the company’s knowledge allows it to assist undocumented workers. “We do that simply out of policy, to people without money or talent,” he said. “We offset our fees (for undocumented workers) with our corporate work.”

The Roby firm sees a great deal of Latino workers, primarily from Mexico and El Salvador, “and now there’s a rise in undocumented Asians,” Roby said. “They come to us because we’re fluent in Spanish, and many of them do not have good English capabilities, so they gravitate to people like themselves, and many are unskilled and less educated. They tend to go to people who are not immigration specialists and trust them only because those people speak English, they say they know immigration, and they don’t know we have a credible firm.

“I often say there is nothing I can do – there is no legal solution at present,” Roby explained of the limitations of the law presented to him by their cases. “They’re shocked. Then they search within their communities for someone with false promises. They’ll say, ‘Give me $1,000, or $3,000.’ Sadly, they’re often misled – about the importance of giving false statements and accurate documentation. We admonish our clients to always give truthful statements and accurate documentation. But, when you come from a culture where bribery is the custom, you’re more willing to do it.”

He emphasized that whether with legal or illegal workers, they work to educate their clients about the absolute importance of doing the right thing. “Sadly, the community has ground them down.”

A key piece of legislation Roby believes is particularly aimed at illegal Mexicans states that if someone has two illegal entries into the United States, and they stay more than 180 days in the U.S. each time, they are permanently barred from entering the U.S ever again. 

“They all want to go back and visit their mamas,” he said. “Unless there is total amnesty of this law, I have to tell them there’s nothing we can do.”

His son, attorney Tony Roby, cautions many undocumented workers who think President Obama’s action suddenly clears them that they need to be careful who they talk with. “The president’s policies have not yet been fully implemented and immigrants have to be careful because there are scammers out there.”

Tony noted that while Obama is looking to help people because of humanitarian reasons, without a question, beneath the executive action are other considerations. “The reality is the money just isn’t there. It’s not realistic or feasible to deport 11 million people,” he said. 

That’s why, Tony Roby pointed out, deportations are focused on criminals. “If you’ve been brought here as a one-year-old, it only makes sense, whether you’re from Mexico or the Ukraine,” he said. “Most don’t even speak the language. It’s not right to be exiled from the only home they’ve ever known.”

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder views immigration as having the potential to invigorate the economy, bringing workers with desirable skills, talents and education to the state – those with STEM skills. Following the president’s executive action, Snyder called on the president and congress to work together to find a long-term, comprehensive solution to the immigration problem in this country.

“Here in Michigan, we’ve demonstrated how we can work together to solve difficult problems. We are proud of our rich heritage of immigration, and know that there are talented people who can help Michigan become stronger. Immigrants are proven job-creators and we should tap their entrepreneurial spirit to accelerate our recovery. We have thousands of students who are trained at our world-class universities who want to stay and be a part of our reinvention,” Snyder said. “I’m calling on Washington to act on Michigan’s request to have 50,000 visas for immigrants to put down roots and build their lives and careers in Detroit. It’s a plan supported by (Detroit) mayor Mike Duggan and other city leaders, and, together, we believe it will help the city – and all Michigan – grow and thrive.We also must never forget that we are a nation of laws. Our leaders in Washington need to make sure that our borders are secure, our employers have the ability to verify status and that those who have worked for years to follow the legal path to citizenship are treated fairly.”

The Michigan Office for New Americans, created by Snyder in January of 2014, has as its mission the goal to “grow Michigan’s economy by retaining global talent and promoting skills, energy and entrepreneurial spirit of our immigrant community and to make Michigan a more welcoming state,” said deputy director Karen Philippi. The office coordinates with other state agencies on immigrant issues.

“Our office is looking at the positive economic force immigration can have, most notably with STEM jobs,” Philippi said. She noted there are more than 80,000 jobs available in the talent bank, many of them STEM jobs, “and there are not enough U.S. born candidates to fill those jobs.”

A report from Georgetown University notes that by 2018, Michigan will need 274,000 STEM jobs to be filled. 

“We definitely want our native-born residents to stay here, but we can’t fill all these jobs with them,” she said. “The talent needs to be supplemented.”

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