Research eyes impact of refugees, immigrants


Thanks to a national initiative in its second year, Grand Rapids will be one of 25 communities getting an assist quantifying the economic contributions of refugees and immigrants.

Samaritas — a faith-based nonprofit — the city of Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce recently received a research-based, nonfinancial award through the 2017 Gateways for Growth Challenge to highlight the contributions immigrants are making by bolstering population growth, increasing the tax base, starting new businesses, creating jobs, and adding vibrancy and culture to the region.

Two nonpartisan, immigration-focused nonprofits — New American Economy and Welcoming America — will conduct tailored research over the next three months on Kent County, with a special focus on Grand Rapids, using U.S. Census metadata.

Joel Lautenbach, executive director of development for Samaritas, applied for the grant with the backing of the city and chamber, and is the project’s coordinator.

He said the finished report — to be released in 2018 — will allow the Office of New Americans, economic developers, the Grand Rapids chamber, the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, nonprofits that serve refugees, the city and its education systems to better understand and tell the story of nonresidents who come to make West Michigan home.

“The deal means tailored research; they will talk with us about what’s important, who is in our community and what are the indicators that are the most important to bring forward, and then they do the research,” he said. “Their skill is to highlight (U.S. Census data) in a way that shows the story of immigrants and refugees.”

The results of the research will be shared with the Grand Rapids community to help with strategic planning surrounding systems-level change.

“We are pleased to collaborate with Samaritas and the Chamber of Commerce on this important effort,” said Greg Sundstrom, Grand Rapids city manager. “This initiative aligns nicely with the work we already are doing at the city to ensure Grand Rapids is an inclusive and welcoming place for everyone.”

Rick Baker, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids chamber, said while the chamber is a supporting party and will use the data once the research is complete, Samaritas is the one helping New American Economy and Welcoming America identify the factors to study.

“The grant from the organizations was specifically targeted toward chambers of commerce,” he said. “In order to be successful in receiving the support, we had to be involved. We were pleased Samaritas would take the lead on the work part of it because it wasn’t something we had the capacity to do.”

He said the chamber is most interested in seeing how the skills immigrants and refugees offer could address the talent shortage the region faces.

“There is some research at the national level about economic impact of immigrants and refugees, but I would like to localize it,” he said. We have heard the likelihood of immigrants starting a business — it’s a high number — but I’d like to see what that number is for us.

“It’s making sure we are creating a pathway for people coming into our community to be successful in our community.”

Lautenbach said approximately 10 percent of Kent County’s population is foreign-born and/or minorities. In the past 10 years, Samaritas and Bethany have combined to resettle 7,000 refugees, at least 1,500 of them from the Congo.

He said that while Samaritas tracks how many individuals it resettles, it does not follow whether they stay or move elsewhere, or if settled refugees are attracting “secondary migration” as more people move here to be with their refugee family members.

Either way, refugees are coming from all over Africa, East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, and a strategy is needed for adapting to the changing demographics, Lautenbach said.

“What we know from U.S. Census data is that an estimated 9.9 percent of Grand Rapids residents are foreign-born: 19,500,” he said. “If you use the metro area, it increases to 65,091. And that’s 6.3 percent of the metro’s population.”

Nonforeign-born and nonrefugee populations also are growing.

“The Hispanic population is the largest percentage of nonrefugees coming to settle here,” Lautenbach said. “There’s a lot of growth in minority races of those that identify as Hispanic, black, Asian, or two or more races. It’s all growing. In the 2010 census, which is the latest census, Kent County had the second-largest population of Hispanics in Michigan.”

He said it’s important for the region to square that population growth with the accompanying economic growth.

“Based on some research from labor statistics, the Grand Rapids statistical area grew the largest of any economy in the nation, at 4.4 percent,” he said. “It’s important to juxtapose that with the percentage of refugees and immigrants participating.

“If you talk to me about what the process of resettling a refugee is, there is no shortage of jobs. The more difficult piece is housing. What we’re hoping to do is share that story with everyone.”

He said he hopes the report also will play a role in helping to build the case for attracting new corporations to West Michigan.

“If The Right Place wants to pull in a major corporation, they have to be able to communicate the diverse backgrounds that live here,” he said. “There are a lot of economic reasons we want to find this data and tell the story,” he said, noting that Dave Riley, director of business intelligence and research at The Right Place, plans to help with the study.

“We want to create an environment where all people feel welcomed and belong. Good job market, schools, great arts and culture. If those people are here and not participating in that civic engagement, and they feel the community is not welcoming, we’re missing out on what we can benefit from as a community and city.”

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