GRAND RAPIDS — Immigrants now living in Kent County are making a significant impact on the local economy.
That’s according to a recently released report spearheaded by the City of Grand Rapids, Samaritas and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
In 2016, foreign-born residents in Kent County earned $1.3 billion and contributed $3.3 billion to the area’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to the report. In addition, this same group of individuals paid $101.5 million in state taxes and $219.4 million in federal taxes.
The report is part of New American Economy’s national Gateways for Growth initiative that pulls together data to better help communities understand and develop multi-sector approaches to create a more welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for immigrants and refugees.
Grand Rapids was one of 24 communities nationwide that received an award from the NAE to conduct the research, a process that takes from eight months to one year with the end result being the release of the findings.
“It’s tailored research, it isn’t a cash award,” said Joel Lautenbach, executive director of development at Samaritas, a Detroit-based social service agency that focuses on refugee resettlement. “It helps you and your community look at the data available for refugees and immigrants in the Census. It brings forth the most important data in a way that really hits home and it catalyzes the community into becoming part of a strategic planning process.”
The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and regional economic development agency The Right Place Inc. also were involved in getting the word out about the report.
“The fundamental strength of moving a community forward is its business community,” Lautenbach said. “Having the Chamber at the table really helps us to start building that momentum. Sometimes when a report is done by a foundation, it gets released and doesn’t go anywhere. I think, collectively, we can do more.”
The report is the latest of a number of nonprofit and for-profit initiatives focused on the changing demographics in Michigan and throughout the United States.
A study co-authored by the Battle Creek-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Ann Arbor-based Altarum Institute found that by 2050, Michigan stands to realize a $92 billion gain in economic output by closing the gap in racial disparities.
Ani Turner, co-director of sustainable health spending strategies with Altarum, said the biggest story is that the state’s population has stagnated and is getting older while also becoming more diverse. A couple of decades ago, the non-Hispanic white population accounted for between 85 percent and 90 percent of the population, she said.
“We are shifting to a higher percentage of people of color,” Turner said. “By 2050, 40 percent of Michigan’s working-age population will be people of color and 45 percent of children will be children of color. The birth rates for Hispanic and Black residents are higher than those of the white population.”
Between 2011 and 2016, Kent County’s population grew by 4.6 percent. At the same time, the county’s immigrant population increased by 15.3 percent, according to the Gateways to Growth report.
“Immigrants bring a tremendous value to our community. They contribute to the vibrancy and diversity of our region and our economy. Immigrants often provide a unique, global perspective that only international citizens can provide,” said Tim Mroz, vice president of marketing and communications for The Right Place. “For us, it’s not about the report itself, but where it may lead and what it spurs in the future.”
SEEKING SUPPORT SYSTEMS
The top five countries of origin for immigrants living in Kent County are Mexico with 24.7 percent, followed by Guatemala, Vietnam, Bosnia, and Canada, each of which ranged from 8.3 percent to 4.8 percent, according to the report.
During the 1960s and 1970s, many Latinos migrated to Detroit because of job opportunities with the Big Three automakers, said Carlos Sanchez, a board member with the Hispanic Center of West Michigan and director of Ferris State University’s Latino Business and Economic Development Center.
“They eventually moved to Grand Rapids because they were looking for a little more family-oriented area,” Sanchez said. “Latinos here see there are opportunities, and this is increasing the attraction of the area.
“Latinos from other countries and other states have also migrated and settled here to be near family. It’s a lot easier to go to a town when you have a support system rather than trying to break in fresh.”
The employment they secure in Kent County often varies from occupations they held in their native countries. As an example, Sanchez knows an individual who was a judge in Venezuela and now works as a caterer in Grand Rapids.
About 45.3 percent of foreign-born workers were employed in the agricultural industry in 2016, according to the report. This was followed by manufacturing (15.1 percent), transportation and warehousing (11.7 percent), hospitality and recreation (11.1 percent), and construction (9.9 percent).
Sanchez said the immigrants in Kent County are very representative of earlier settlers who stayed in the Grand Rapids area.
“They came here without much money, but the places they were coming from were even worse. They found a fertile ground for business,” Sanchez said. “(Immigrants) add to the resilience and spirit of this community. Entrepreneurs succeed out of lack of resources because they’re forced to hustle. There are stories of people starting businesses in their garage.”
‘A QUESTION OF EQUITY’
According to Mroz, immigrants are filling some the most needed jobs in the region’s economy — at all levels — and are driving the local economy forward. It’s a trend that Lautenbach at Samaritas expects to grow as immigrants take advantage of greater employment, training, and educational opportunities in West Michigan.
The median income for immigrants and refugees is well below the national average, but after about 15 years, their income starts to become on par with the average American income, Lautenbach said. After another decade, their earnings outstrip the average American income because they are motivated to work hard and succeed, he added.
“The business community says they have a shortage of labor, and we have skilled laborers. There have been great efforts by educational leaders who want to align their systems for the workforce of tomorrow,” Lautenbach said. “If we have pro-immigrant and refugee policies in place, we can continue to fill that need for more skilled labor.
“Immigrants — and for that matter refugees — come very motivated to work and provide for their families. They see education as the cornerstone for their future.”
Looking ahead, Lautenbach said his organization will be applying for technical assistance in the next round of awards from the NAE and its Gateways initiative. He said Samaritas also will be looking for buy-in from the philanthropic sector with a focus on ensuring that immigrants and refugees have opportunities for leadership and civic engagement and a voice at the table.
“There’s a question of equity within these initiatives,” Lautenbach said. “We hope that people in Grand Rapids and Kent County join the conversation about making our community more welcoming to immigrants or refugees.”