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Rishi Makkar Rishi Makkar COURTESY PHOTO

Chilling Effect? West Michigan execs fear talent fallout over Trump’s immigration policies

BY Sunday, February 19, 2017 05:39pm

Growing up in Kalamazoo, Rishi Makkar vividly recalls his father working nights mopping floors at a gas station while chairing the criminal justice department at Western Michigan University by day. 

The notion that an academic would work nights in a manual labor job for low wages stuck with Makkar, a Sikh whose family emigrated from India in 1988 when he was six years old. He later moved to West Michigan, founding Rishi’s International Beverage, a retailer of craft beer, wine and spirits in 1999. The company currently operates stores in Grand Rapids and Cascade. 

While noting the West Michigan community has welcomed his family with open arms, Makkar says he is disturbed by anti-immigration rhetoric and policies on a national level since President Donald Trump took office last month. 

Makkar points to the potential for fallout from the Trump’s travel ban in late January that temporarily barred immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days, refugees for 120 days, and Syrian refugees indefinitely. 

While the federal courts have issued a stay on the travel ban, Makkar fears the damage to the country’s reputation, specifically its ability to attract international talent, has already been done. 

“It was the drama,” Makkar said. “It put us on the international stage for ‘why would I want to live and work there?’ … When there’s fear within a small minority community that Americans treat us bad and make fun of us and don’t want us to be here, now people who have a lot of talent and can work anywhere in the world, how do you attract those people?” 

Many local business leaders share Makkar’s concern, noting the fallout from the travel ban will ultimately undermine efforts by businesses to expand, and for the state to expand its tax base. 

“If you look at the numbers, immigration has been one of the primary reasons why Michigan has been able to stabilize its population in the last few years,” said Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. “It’s extremely important and it’s going to be even more important going forward if we’re going to grow more jobs and create more demand for development and construction.”

While Rothwell is quick to point out that he is unable to comment whether the Trump administration’s travel ban is correct from a national security perspective, he notes “our default position should be pro-immigration because it’s vital to the country and vital to Michigan.”

BUSINESS IMPACTS 

While the majority of sources interviewed for this report acknowledge the importance of maintaining secure borders, their largest concerns stem from the ability of local employers to attract and retain foreign talent. 

“On the high-skilled side, there’s a lot of rhetoric right now about how workers coming in under these (immigration) programs are suppressing wages and taking American jobs,” said Kimberly Clark, an immigration attorney at Grand Rapids-based Varnum LLP. “From my experience in immigration, that is not the case. Employers are going after these visas because they cannot find American workers with the skill sets needed.” 

Clark said the majority of calls she received following the travel ban are either from those immigrants fearful of what may happen, or from those hoping to expedite their process for securing citizenship, which can take over a decade in some cases. 

Any industry with advanced research and design or other top-tier positions may be primed to lose out on highly-skilled immigrants in the wake of the travel ban, particularly those in the medical and technology industries, sources said.  

On a state level, immigrants make up 25.3 percent of Michigan’s technology industry, according to a report published by the Michigan Office For New Americans (MONA) in August 2016. 

MONA formed in 2014 under an order by Gov. Rick Snyder to support immigration efforts. The agency operates under the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA).  

Outside of Michigan, a coalition of Silicon Valley tech giants including Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Tesla, Google, Uber and Intel joined nearly 130 other companies in filing an amicus brief earlier this month with the U.S. Court of Appeals arguing against the travel ban, according to reports. The companies stated that the travel ban could hurt their business on multiple fronts, including discouraging “world-class talent” from working with U.S. firms, according to the brief. 

There’s also concern in the market that the pool of migrant farm labor could be affected under the Trump administration’s protectionist policies, according to Varnum’s Clark. 

Many Michigan farmers already struggle to find enough labor to fill talent needs at harvest time, said Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place Inc., a Grand Rapids-based economic development firm.

“If you go and talk to our farmers, (they) can’t pick their fruit without migrant labor,” Klohs told MiBiz in a conversation about overall immigration reform. “If we don’t get folks here in April, May, June, July and August when we’re picking strawberries, blueberries, yellow beans and asparagus, I don’t know who is going to pick that stuff.”

ASSESSING CONTRIBUTIONS

Immigrants’ contributions go far beyond supplying U.S. firms with highly-skilled talent. Once here, sources said immigrants often become pillars of their local communities, paying taxes and purchasing goods from local businesses. 

The MONA report, which focused on the contributions of immigrants to the state’s economy, showed immigrants in Michigan earned $19.6 billion in income in 2014 and paid $5.4 billion in taxes. 

Even with the rhetoric surrounding immigration on the federal level, state officials plan to continue encouraging immigration to Michigan. 

“The Michigan Office for New Americans will remain focused on our initiatives and partnerships that help New Americans achieve success here,” Director Bing Goei said in an email to MiBiz. “Generations of immigrants have built our cities and pioneered new businesses. Our state has long been a welcoming place and we anticipate that will continue as we see Michigan’s economic comeback thrive and our population grow.” 

NOT A NEW ISSUE 

Despite the recent furor over immigration policy, companies have struggled for years to source enough labor under the federal H1B visa program, which allows businesses to hire highly specialized talent from overseas. 

The program issues 69,000 visas a year starting in October, the majority of which are used by large technology firms, putting smaller companies at a disadvantage, Klohs said. The issue highlights the need for “true immigration reform,” she said. 

Doug DeVos, president of Ada-based direct-selling giant Amway Corp., echoes concerns over the limited scope of the H1B visa program, adding that his company previously has pushed to expand it. Amway hires many foreign nationals in its research and design departments.

“I think there’s a lot of talk right now,” DeVos told MiBiz about the current immigration policy. “To a certain extent, until the cabinet gets put in place and until negotiations with foreign countries happen and until Congress acts, it’s very unclear. We’re not jumping one way or another. We just have to wait and see.”

For Klohs, who emigrated from Germany and built her career in West Michigan, immigration is a deeply personal issue.

“This country is made up of immigrants,” said Klohs, speaking personally and not for The Right Place. “My biggest concern about it is the message that it sent. … This country has always been a beacon and I hope that stays that way. As Ronald Reagan said, it’s the shiny city on the hill and I would like it to stay that shiny city on the hill. It is, after all, America.” 

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Editor's Note: A previous version of this story mistakenly noted that Rishi Makkar grew up in Lansing and that his father worked at Michigan State University. Makkar grew up in Kalamazoo and his father chaired the Criminal Justice Department at Western Michigan University. Makkar attended Michigan State University.

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