The quiet Midwest movement for inclusion

In America’s heartland, “there is this quiet movement of folks who have come to the conclusion that immigrants can be a real catalyst for…the revitalization of cities and a competitive advantage,” said Welcoming Economies Global Network Co-Chair Steve Tobocman in a recent briefing with Business Forward’s national business leader network.

“When regional economic development plans align with the assets that immigrants bring…that’s when we see change,” Tobocman, who also serves as Director of Global Detroit, said. His briefing highlighted how both Global Detroit and the Welcoming Economies Global Network work to attract, retain, and integrate immigrants into their local communities.

Tobocman founded Global Detroit because he saw immigrants as “a perfect complement to a lot of the issues facing Detroit and the metro area and the things that we need”: skilled workers, main street business leaders, and people seeking opportunity. Over the next few years, he connected with similar organizations and formed the Welcoming Economies Global Network. The Network now includes 37 organizations from cities across the former Rust Belt. He described them as economic development initiatives that “embrace some core values.” They see immigrant communities as “central to embracing economic revitalization” and believe immigrants “help make the region more vibrant for everyone.”

The briefing featured an overview of various programs Global Detroit and the Welcoming Economies Global Network have seen succeed in their cities.  In St. Louis and Detroit, professional connector programs connect employers to a talent pool of immigrants and help job seekers build effective interview and entrepreneurial skills.

In Detroit, the Network runs a program to help place international students with STEM degrees in local jobs. According to Tobocman, nationwide, “between 40 to 70 percent of all the graduate students in STEM are international students,” including 63 percent of computer science graduate students. The student retention program works to keep these American-educated students in the U.S. after graduation by finding them jobs in their fields of study.

According to Tobocman, immigrants are critical to the revitalization of cities of all sizes. “Immigrants own 58% of the nation’s dry cleaners, 53% of the nation’s grocery stores, 38% of all the restaurants these are businesses that give the lifeblood of the community,” he said.

“The reality is immigrants come here seeking freedom and economic opportunity…the things that all of us want,” Tobocman said. “When you tell the story about them as people of faith as people who are hardworking strivers who are very entrepreneurial and who are some of the quickest and most passionate to embrace American ideals…telling those stories can be some of the most persuasive.”

Tobocman closed with two quotes on the positive impact of immigrants and their necessity in revitalizing communities and the economy. The first, from Ed Roberts: “To immigrate is an entrepreneurial act.” The second, from the President’s Commission on Immigrant in 1953: “The richest regions in the world are those with the highest proportion of immigrants.” Listen to the full recording of Tobocman’s presentation and view the slides here.