Jeff Green's Bloomberg BusinessWeekarticle looks at how immigration from the Middle East, particularly from Syria and Iraq, has played a major role in the revitalization of Michigan generally and Detroit in particular.
Renan Sadak, who has a degree in computer science from his native Iraq, could land only an $11-an-hour job managing a liquor store when he arrived in Detroit seven years ago as a refugee. “I got married, and I wanted to make more money,” Sadak says, but the city was in the throes of recession.
Last year the resurgent auto industry began to change the prospects for work. Sadak was hired in June to drive a truck shuttling auto parts for Midwest Freight Systems in Warren, Mich., at double his original pay at the liquor shop. “Now I’m making a decent wage,” he says. “I’m covering all the bills.”
At a time when Europe and many parts of the U.S. are divided about integrating refugees from the Middle East, Michigan is providing opportunities for immigrants from the war-torn region. The state and the city of Detroit have the U.S.’s highest concentration of residents with roots in that part of the world. The Detroit area’s Arabic community goes back a century.
As the auto industry recovers, companies in Michigan ranging from small operations such as Midwest Freight to bigger ones like Denso, a Japanese auto parts maker, are tapping immigrant workers to fill a labor shortage. Newcomers from the Arabic-speaking world are benefiting, as are refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma). “Three years ago, maybe 20 to 30 percent of the refugees could get work in the auto industry,” says Jasmine Ward, a manufacturing recruiter at Allegiance Staffing in Fraser, Mich. The automakers and their suppliers just weren’t hiring. Now, she says, “if they want to work, they can pretty much find a job. They work really hard, and that’s what companies are looking for.”
The auto industry is hiring long-established residents, too. African Americans last year made up about 15 percent of the U.S. auto workforce, from a low of 11 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Black unemployment in Michigan fell to 11.6 percent in 2015, down from 23.9 percent in 2010, says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. White unemployment in 2015 was 4.5 percent, vs. 10.6 percent in 2010.
Last year, Michigan accepted 1,162 Iraqi refugees and 246 Syrians, according to U.S. Department of State data. That’s more than any other state except Texas and California, which each accepted about 200 more refugees than Michigan. They’ll integrate them into populations at least twice the size of Michigan’s. The state has drawn a total of 13,800 people from those two countries, mostly from Iraq, in the past five years.