From an economist’s perspective, each legal immigrant holds the potential for augmenting “human capital,” the ultimate source of growth and prosperity for a region or nation. Human capital is best regarded as a stock of knowledge and habits, as well as social and personality attributes that include creativity and personal responsibility — all of which is manifested in each individual’s ability to perform productive labor with transgenerational value.
Immigrants who adopt citizenship tend to possess characteristics associated with economic success. A prime example is the estimated 150,000 Chaldeans, principally Iraqi Christians, who reside in metro Detroit. Attracted by Henry Ford’s $5-a-day wage at the Highland Park Model T Plant a century ago, the Chaldean population first moved to Detroit, before spreading out to Oakland and Macomb counties.
Chaldean entrepreneurship is now firmly documented in the evolving economic history of metro Detroit. An estimated 60 percent of the local Chaldean population derives its household income from the ownership of a business. For Michigan, this is an exceptional and significant number.
Consider that despite falling rates of immigration between 2000 and 2012, largely the result of the 2008 global economic crisis, Michigan ranked second (only behind California, the most populous state) in the attraction of Iraqis, the chief source of new Chaldean immigrants. Remarkably, 92 percent of recent immigrant Chaldeans selected Michigan as a destination, according to Data Driven Detroit.
Significantly, disinvestment and decay in many Detroit neighborhoods since 2000 had lowered the cost of initial capital investment to those merchants wanting to build new enterprises. As a result, Chaldeans — already known for establishing corner specialty stores, service stations, restaurants, groceries, and lodgings — expanded their entrepreneurship throughout the region.
Today, more than 500,000 people of Middle Eastern descent reside in metro Detroit, and they accounts for 10 percent of the population and make an annual economic impact of $36.4 billion.
Notwithstanding this encouraging scenario, present-day realism requires considerably more citizen vigilance and caution vis-à-vis future immigration practices. Households have legitimate concerns over the inability of our state and nation to balance budgets or fund the burgeoning, unfunded liabilities of existing government programs (now topping $45 billion for state and local employees in Michigan alone).
Deteriorating infrastructures such as water systems, roads, and bridges, as well as insecure utility centers and dilapidated schools, foreshadow proliferating economic weakness and financial insolvency. For Michigan, compensating for these deficiencies will cost taxpayers in excess of $15 billion by 2020. Meanwhile, greater portions of our lower and middle-class youth struggle to land good-income, full-time employment.
Americans now question what they perceive as an absence of social and economic justice when they are required to further subsidize enclaves of unknown people who may be suspect in their willingness to adopt the values, language, culture, and constitutions of Michigan and the United States. They compare current documented and undocumented entrants with prior generations who were eager to become self-sustaining members of their community and who contributed greatly to what brought our nation pre-eminence. We are a compassionate and generous people, they say, but we no longer have the resources to subsidize yet another class of dependents and still meet our pressing responsibilities at home.
Then there is the issue of national security, fostered by well-documented reports of terrorist plans and actual deeds of mass violence. In Detroit, these fears are justified. On Christmas Day 2009, the “underwear bomber” nearly destroyed Northwest Flight 253, with 290 passengers aboard, over the city of Detroit. It is already known that national and UN-related agencies lack access to documentation that would properly vet these refugees in a timely manner, thus preventing the entry of malevolent individuals under false pretenses.
Chaldean entrepreneurs have rapidly transformed their earlier, small-business employment into professional services, and they now own large telecommunication, real estate, food, and lodging enterprises. It is possible that the saga of Chaldean migration and development will foreshadow the human capital prospects of Middle Eastern migration to Michigan and metro Detroit. But there is no assurance of positive social and economic results without honest, transparent scrutiny of the health, motivation, and credentials of prospective immigrants to our shores.