Detroit’s immigrants sustain an ailing city as debate consumes D.C.

An influx of 16,000 immigrant Latinos big enough to prompt the opening of 17 taquerias in five years has spared southwest Detroit from the city’s downward spiral.

In and around Hamtramck, a two-square-mile enclave surrounded by the city, almost 10,000 immigrants from Bangladesh and Yemen bolster the economy of a town once known for its Polish heritage. A few miles away, Chaldeans who once thronged north Detroit want to revive their presence there with housing for refugees fleeing the Islamic State in their homeland of Iraq.

“I’m not sure many other people would take the chance that I took,” said Bangladesh native Khurshed Ahmed, 32, a naturalized citizen who five years ago opened a restaurant to tap the local market of Muslims craving halal pizza.

While debate rages in Washington over what to do with an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants, the Motor City and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, R, want to attract foreign-born settlers to move past a record bankruptcy and repopulate an emptied landscape. Foreign-born professionals, business owners and refugees have helped sustain Detroit throughout the loss of two-thirds of its population since 1950.

Snyder, 56, has asked President Barack Obama to issue 50,000 visas over five years to high-skill and entrepreneurial immigrants who agree to live in Detroit. The city this year created a task force to assist the foreign-born.

“People are already moving to the city,” council member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez said. “It’s a question of how you streamline the process and make it easier.”

The 18th-largest U.S. city ranks 135th in the number of foreign-born residents, said Steve Tobocman, director of Global Detroit, a nonprofit agency that promotes legal immigration as an economic catalyst.

Still, in 2007 they accounted for 11 percent of the economic output in a four-county area that includes Detroit while making up 9 percent of the population, according to the most recent data from New York’s Fiscal Policy Institute, a research organization.

Detroit has about 35,000 foreign-born residents out of an estimated 688,000, according to Global Detroit. In the metropolitan region, two-thirds own their homes and about half have become citizens.

Those who live in the city find housing bargains. The median sales price of Detroit homes in October was about $18,000, according to Realcomp, a Farmington Hills real-estate listing service. That compares with $145,000 for the four-county metropolitan area

Southwest Detroit is the most notable example of vitality, with its contingent of immigrants and about 30,000 U.S.-born Latinos and healthy business district. As the city struggled to replace broken streetlights, a neighborhood business group mustered $6.4 million in grants to replace them and spruce up its main street, Vernor Highway.

Around the Hamtramck border, dozens of businesses, many immigrant-owned, contrast with blighted and abandoned buildings that scar neighborhoods nearby.

Foreign-born residents tend to be younger, more educated and more likely to start businesses than Michigan’s general population, Tobocman said.

“When immigrants feel welcome, they’re very good at reaching out to others and multiplying their numbers,” he said.

Numbers are what Detroit needs. Its population has fallen from 1.8 million in 1950, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s left swaths of the city abandoned, blight-ridden and poor. By 2012, the property-tax base, adjusted for inflation, had fallen to 21 percent of its 1950s value, according to a report by Tobocman.

“Solid economic evidence suggests that immigrants disproportionately contribute to economic growth, employment and wage gains – including for local African-American populations,” according to a 2010 Global Detroit report.

Groups that help Chaldean refugees want to buoy Detroit’s north side, where members of the Christian sect first settled in the 1960s. The Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce has plans for a Detroit “village” that includes housing for those fleeing militants in Iraq and Syria.

Detroit leaders are receptive and the project is seeking investors and state and city approval, said Martin Manna, chamber president. Manna said 90 percent of the city’s Chaldeans have moved out since 2003, though members still own most convenience and liquor stores. About 30,000 Chaldean refugees have fled to Michigan since 2007, Manna said.

He said Detroit’s cheap land makes it advantageous for redevelopment. Crime and substandard schools don’t.

“Imagine if we could repopulate the city,” Manna said. “But the challenges are enormous for security and schools.”

Gov. Snyder’s focus has been to lure and keep high- skill professionals and university students, and to persuade some to move to Detroit. To that end, Snyder this year created the Michigan Office for New Americans.

“There are opportunities if we can get specifically designated visas for people willing to invest in Detroit and work in Detroit,” director Bing Goei said.

Snyder’s request for 50,000 Detroit visas is innovative, although the illegal-immigration fight overshadows it, said Margie McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. Obama is at odds with Republican lawmakers who say his executive order will amount to amnesty for law-breakers.

“That has sucked all the oxygen out of conversations about modernizing our immigration system,” said McHugh, director of immigration integration.

McHugh said a better strategy is to target visas for specific jobs. In Canada and Australia, local governments compete for visas to meet economic needs, McHugh said.

“It’s hard to envision circumstances that highly skilled people who could go anywhere else in the U.S. would go to Detroit,” she said.

Those aren’t the only people who can help, said Mexico native and Detroiter Sergio Martinez, a 26-year-old restaurant manager whose parents brought him to the U.S. when he was 5.

“High-skill immigrants get the breaks,” he said. “You’re ignoring the immigrants you already have in your city, the ones who are spending money every day, going to work, building families here.”

An estimated 22,000 unauthorized immigrants live in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, according to a new report by the Migration Policy Institute.

Martinez was in the U.S. illegally until 2012, when he was granted two-year status under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood. Martinez plans to own the home he rents for $700 a month in a tattered neighborhood near Detroit’s Latino hub. The house needs a new roof, new floors, new kitchen and new neighbors.

Where others see blight, Martinez sees opportunity.

“A lot of people in my community see it as half-full,” said Martinez, who wants to own a restaurant and become a lawyer. “They don’t just leave the city where they grew up.”

– With assistance from Heidi Przybyla and Mike Dorning in Washington.