Grand Rapids community leaders agreed making immigrants feel like they belong in Kent County not only is right but is economically smart.
Foreign-born residents of Kent County contributed $3.3 billion to the county’s GDP in 2016, according to a report presented Sept. 12 by the local Gateways for Growth Project, headed by Joel Lautenbach, Samaritas executive director of development.
Gateways for Growth is a national project that gives local communities technical assistance from New American Economy and Welcoming America to develop multisector plans for integrating immigrants.
The study, compiled from 2016 U.S. census data, shows more than 50,000 immigrants account for 8 percent of the Kent County population, with more than 13,300 being undocumented and more than 7,600 being refugees.
The percentage of Kent County immigrants from the top five countries of origin are: Mexico, 24.7 percent; Guatemala, 8.3 percent; Vietnam, 7.8 percent; Bosnia, 4.9 percent; and Canada, 4.8 percent.
Between 2011 and 2016, the county’s population grew by 4.6 percent, while the immigrant population grew by 15.3 percent.
The report shows immigrants heavily employed in several of the county’s key industries. The share of immigrant workers in the local agriculture industry is 45 percent. Others include: manufacturing, 15 percent; transportation, 12 percent; hospitality and recreation, 11 percent; and construction, 10 percent.
The report estimates immigrants living in the county had helped create or preserve more than 2,300 local manufacturing jobs that would have otherwise vanished or moved elsewhere.
Although immigrants made up 8 percent of the city’s overall population, they represented 9.9 percent of its working-age population, 9.4 percent of its employed labor force and 9.9 percent of its STEM workers.
The 1,971 immigrant entrepreneurs represent 7.8 percent of the community and generate an estimated $47.6 million.
Guillermo Cisneros, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, shared a story of an immigrant who walked into his office a few months ago with an idea for a food truck.
The Hispanic chamber worked with her to obtain proper licensing and financing. Now, she has her own truck and licensing.
He called this the “perfect tale of the American dream that the 1,971 immigrant entrepreneurs in Kent County strive for.”
Of the $1.3 billion earned by immigrant households, $219.4 million went to federal taxes and $101.5 million went to state and local taxes.
Kent County immigrants contributed $124.6 million to Social Security and $33.3 million to Medicare. While 31 percent of U.S. born residents received those services, 26 percent of immigrants received them.
About 57 percent of immigrants had private health care coverage, while 26 percent had public coverage.
“Let that resonate as we are often convinced that our immigrant brothers and sisters take more from the system than they give,” Cisneros said. “We can clearly and proudly say that is not true.”
The report shows 35 percent of U.S.-born residents and 27 percent of immigrants over age 25 had four-year degrees. Advanced degrees were held by 11.3 percent of U.S.-born residents and 11.8 percent of immigrants over age 25.
Tim Mroz, vice president of marketing and communication for The Right Place, a Grand Rapids-based economic development organization, noted Michigan’s lack of workforce talent.
“From an economic development standing, immigration and foreign-born talent are vital to our region’s long-term economic growth and prosperity,” he said.
Mroz said The Right Place believes utilizing the diverse, global perspective that comes from international talent could prepare West Michigan to operate on a “truly global scale.”
Rick Baker, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has recognized the benefit of diversity and inclusion, and is working toward strengthening those aspects in the community.
As far as a policy approach, he said the chamber agrees and supports the immigration stance of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Implementations the U.S. chamber would like to see include: green card reform and temporary worker programs; national employment verification system for employers; improved border control while facilitating flow of trade and travel; and a “tough but fair” process to grant legal status to the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. today.
The city of Grand Rapids has been actively working on initiatives to expand diversity and employment for its government workers, according to Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.
In an initiative called Grow Your Own, she said the city goes into the community to educate diverse communities about civil service and how to apply for jobs.
She estimates within the next three years, 50 percent of city employees will retire.
“This is a significant opportunity to expand our languages and our cultures in every single one of our departments so that we can be more culturally and linguistically responsive to our wide range of residents and businesses that we work so hard to serve,” she said.
Baker said the change starts with everyone in the business community making conscious hiring and purchasing decisions.
“If you’re a leader in your company, then it needs to be a priority for your organization and you as an individual,” Baker said.
“Action is required to move the needle to ensure we can all benefit from our city’s success,” Bliss said.
Lautenbach said the local Gateways for Growth group is gathering feedback from immigrant communities over the next four months.
In early 2019, he said he will be applying for a Gateways for Growth grant on technical assistance and strategic planning.
He hopes to include all sectors of the community to help determine the best ways to move forward.
“We don’t know all the answers, but we want to figure them out,” Lautenbach said.