Michigan economic developers say the “incendiary” rhetoric coming from one U.S. presidential candidate in particular has created an unwelcoming environment for many skilled workers and could chill prospects for foreign investment in Michigan and beyond.
When bombastic GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump calls for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants and for building a 40- to 50-foot-tall wall along the Mexican border, it sends the wrong message to foreign companies who have invested heavily in the state — and to highly skilled foreign workers who contribute to the diversity of the economy.
That’s according to Bob Trezise, the president and CEO of Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), a Lansing-based economic development firm focused on attracting companies and workers to the Capital region.
During an economic development roundtable discussion this week with MiBiz, Trezise said his organization works with a handful of interns from countries such as the Ukraine and Bahrain, and they’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the messages coming from the campaign trail.
“A number of younger interns and members of our community that we have welcomed from other countries — and who do nothing but add to the diversity, wealth and knowledge of our economy — have expressed to me fear and a sense of persecution based on the words of candidate Trump,” Trezise said in a follow-up email. “They are worried, and this kind of climate does not assist our economic development efforts.”
Economic developers say part of their jobs is to attract businesses from outside the state to locate operations in Michigan, which will hold its presidential primary election on Tuesday, March 8. That includes seeking out foreign investment from the likes of LG Chem, Citic DiCastal, INglass Group SpA, Mann+Hummel Inc. and Denso, which are among the more than 130 foreign-owned companies that have operations in West Michigan, according to The Right Place Inc.
Since 2006, nearly $12.8 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) has made its way into Michigan, accounting for almost 53,000 jobs, according to a study by FDIMarkets.com that the Michigan Economic Development Corp. supplied to MiBiz.
Birgit Klohs, the longtime president and CEO of The Right Place Inc. who immigrated to the United States from Germany, shared Trezise’s concerns about the present political environment.
Like LEAP, The Right Place currently employs a foreign-born intern at its office, Klohs said. The young woman from Russia has chosen to stay in the U.S., but she has also expressed worry at much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric, according to Klohs.
“I’m an immigrant,” Klohs said. “I hope I contributed something to this country in the last few years that I’ve been here.”
Moreover, economic developers say their ability to attract foreign investment to the state has already become more difficult in recent months as issues like Flint’s water crisis and the possibility of the Detroit Public Schools falling into bankruptcy tarnish Michigan’s reputation. The national rhetoric around immigration just makes their jobs that much more difficult, they said.
In contrast to the immigration backlash as part of the presidential primary process, many Michigan business advocacy groups have pushed to reform immigration policies to make it easier for companies to attract foreign workers.
A 2014 report from Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM), a Detroit-based statewide business roundtable, called for overall increases in worker visas and for establishing a “manageable legal system” to better accommodate less-skilled workers in sectors such as agriculture, hospitality and construction.
Immigrants made up 7 percent of the state’s workforce and more than 25,000 international students attended Michigan universities in 2014, according to the BLM report.
Those immigrants also start many companies in the state, said Klohs of The Right Place.
“Immigrants, oftentimes, are more entrepreneurial than the general population,” she said.
DOUBTING THE RHETORIC
Despite the strong words used by Trump during his rallies — wherein crowds frequently chant “build the wall” — it remains difficult to know where the candidate actually stands on immigration.
According to a recent report on the website Buzzfeed, Trump may have clarified his immigration and deportation policy in an off-the-record conversation with the editorial board of The New York Times.
A recording of the conversation exists, according to multiple reports. Because the talk was off-the-record, the Times has refused to release it without Trump’s consent, which he has not given despite calls from other candidates and journalists to do so.
During Thursday’s GOP presidential candidate debate in Detroit, Trump seemed to back-pedal on some of his stances on immigration, particularly in terms of attracting skilled workers to the United States.
“So, we do need (the) highly skilled, and one of the biggest problems we have is people go to the best colleges,” Trump said, according to a debate transcript published by The New York Times. “They’ll go to Harvard, they’ll go to Stanford, they’ll go to Wharton, as soon as they’re finished they’ll get shoved out. They want to stay in this country. They want to stay here desperately, they’re not able to stay here. For that purpose, we absolutely have to be able to keep the brain power in this country.”
That led debate moderator and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly to challenge Trump about whether he was abandoning his previous positions.
“I’m changing it, and I’m softening the position because we have to have talented people in this country,” Trump replied back, according to the transcript.
Just minutes earlier in the debate, however, Trump said he “was not very flexible” when it came to his immigration stance.
The Trump campaign did not reply to a request for additional comment from MiBiz.
For economic developers such as LEAP’s Trezise, who says his organization has worked hard to make the Lansing area welcoming to a diverse workforce and attractive to foreign investors, it’s important for national candidates to cool their provocative rhetoric about immigrants, many of whom feel like they’re being unfairly targeted in the campaign.
“They are feeling very isolated or picked on,” Trezise said of Lansing’s population of immigrant workers and business professionals. “There is damage being done already to all of our (economic development) efforts with these incendiary comments. It is not cool.”