Just over two years ago, an eager governor vowed to use every tool available to make Michigan the most welcoming state for immigrants, but it’s been a tough row to hoe ever since.
Gov. Rick Snyder announced the Michigan Office for New Americans in 2014 as part of his plan to attract and retain immigrants, which he hoped would help create a pipeline of talent in the state.
At the time, the state was trying to figure out how to fill the 274,000 job vacancies in the science, technology, engineering and math sectors that had been predicted to occur in Michigan by 2018.
“We need to focus on legal immigration and make sure people know Michigan is the most welcoming place, and I'm intent on moving forward with that,” Snyder said in his State of the State address that year.
Snyder acknowledged that, in many ways, the state’s hands were tied, however. Without changes to immigration at the federal level, there was little the state could do on its own to increase immigration and refugee resettlements.
Still, Michigan trudged forward, asking the federal government to set aside 50,000 employment-based visas for Detroit over a five-year period and applying to establish an EB-5 program, which is a foreign investment program with a path to citizenship attached.
Snyder was not able to secure the visas for Detroit, but the EB-5 program has been approved.
The state also moved forward with establishing the Michigan Office for New Americans, and he selected Grand Rapids businessman Bing Goei — an immigrant — as its director.
“He wanted to make sure there was an intentional focus on ensuring as new immigrants, new Americans, new refugees come to the state of Michigan, (we) not only create for them a welcoming state and environment, but we also give them every opportunity to participate and contribute to the economic growth we are experiencing in our state,” Goei said.
“That has been our focus and our efforts in our last two years.”
Goei said he and his two full-time colleagues have spent the past two years reaching out to immigrant groups that already are here, along with new arrivals, to ensure they are aware of the resources available to them.
“A lot of the first two years has been connecting to the communities and making them aware of what we can do as a state, and also for the state to know what they are able to do for us, as well,” he said.
Goei said creating a welcoming environment also involves educating people who are not supportive or maybe are downright hostile toward immigration in the state.
“The conversation around immigration and refugee resettlements has been so toxic in the last few months,” Goei said.
He said he thinks the primary reason for those attitudes is that people aren’t aware of the economic impact and contributions of immigrants and refugees on the state’s economy.
“There are a lot of wonderful success stories happening in Michigan and across our country,” he said.
“For example, in the four metropolitan Detroit counties where there is a significant Arab-American population, that community as a whole contributes or participates in a $7.7 billion economy … just in that four-county region. They either own a business or work for companies, and contribute $544 million in taxes to the state of Michigan.”
He added, “In the state of Michigan alone, the Latino community pays $1.1 billion in federal taxes and $565 million in state and local taxes. We don’t talk about their contributions.”
Along with trying to encourage greater acceptance for immigration, Goei said he also has been focused on asking the question “What more can we do?” when it comes to helping immigrants and refugees become established in their new communities.
“One of the programs we started is called the Michigan International Talent Solutions program, and it’s a spinoff of the Upwardly Global national program that was started.
“Our focus is to help newly arrived Americans who have arrived in Michigan and who are work certified — so employers don’t have to deal with the visa issues — but who may need refresher courses to re-enter the field of expertise they left behind in their previous country.”
Goei said the Office for New Americans helps those individuals identify the steps necessary to become certified in Michigan and also works to find employers who might hire them.
“It’s a new program that was started in the last couple of months, but we’ve already seen some small successes,” he said.
Goei said ensuring Michigan’s policies don’t create unnecessary roadblocks is another area of focus for his office.
“We are looking to ensure our licensing and our certification policies allow for acknowledgement and recognition of the degrees and work experiences these individuals coming here have,” he said.
He noted his organization worked with the Michigan Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Department on its licensing requirements in the barber and cosmetology industry.
“The previous requirements to receive a license to do that work in Michigan included 3,000 hours of practical experience,” he said. “If you come here and you already owned your own business in the country you came from and you already have experience for 20 years, is it logical for you to be required to do 3,000 hours of practical training, or is it possible to look at another way we can make sure you have the talent to do it?”
Goei said today, individuals with previous barber or cosmetology experience in another country are able to take a 300-hour re-training program and, if they pass the requirements after that, they can receive a license.
While that is a minor example, Goei said, it’s opening the doors to other areas where similar changes can be implemented.