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A View from Michigan

Demographic Trends and Data


In 1990 immigrants made up 4% of Michigan’s total population. That percentage grew to 5% in 2000, and to 6% in 2010. The figure below compares the share of the immigrant population in Michigan compared with other states in the Midwest. The foreign-born population in Michigan grew by 65% between 1990 and 2010. This was one of the lowest increases in the Midwest region.


Over the past decade Michigan has welcomed 23,547 refugees from 49 countries. Cumulatively, since the early 1980s, Michigan has hosted more refugees than any other state in the region, though it has been overtaken by Minnesota in the past 10years. As of FY 2010, refugees have made up around 3.6% of Michigan’s total foreign born population, more than double the proportion nationwide. Between FY 2006 and FY 2009, an average of 188 asylees also settled in the state each year. Due primarily to its large Arab-American population, more Iraqi refugees come to Michigan than any other Midwestern state. Most of these refugees left Iraq to escape sectarian violence following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. However, a significant number also belong to minority sects (e.g., Sabeans, Yazidis, and Nestorian Christians) and fled religious persecution. Since FY 2000 the number of Iraqi refugees resettling in the state (8,802) has been significantly larger than any other group. In fact, 20% of all Iraqi refugees coming to the United States settle in Detroit, more than any other U.S. city. This has posed a unique challenge for a state that has suffered greatly from the recent recession. High unemployment and a struggling local economy have made it difficult for the state to accommodate such an influx of new residents. The State Department has discouraged Iraqi refugees from resettling in the area, but the lure of family ties and the prospect of support from the local Arab-American community have proven too strong for many. This is particularly true among Chaldeans (Iraqi Catholics). Detroit is currently home to the largest Chaldean community in the world outside the Middle East. Finding employment for refugees once government benefits run out is a particular concern for local voluntary agencies. RefugeeWorks, a national refugee employment agency, has found that Iraqi refugees have an advantage in that they were often skilled urban professionals back home and come to the United States already speaking a high level of English. Accordingly, re-accrediting or retraining these workers will likely be a priority for social services organizations. In addition to Iraq, the most common countries of origin for refugees arriving in Michigan between FY 2000 and 2011 were Burma (2,557), the former Yugoslavia (2,367), Cuba (1,685), Somalia (1,008), and Bhutan (1,004). Burma and Bhutan are currently the fastest growing nationalities, whereas flows of Iraqi, Somali, and Sudanese refugees have been the steadiest in recent years. The number of refugees arriving from the former Yugoslavia has declined precipitously since FY 2000, with none arriving since FY 2005. While the majority of Iraqis settle in the Detroit metropolitan area, refugees arriving in Michigan settle in a number of communities across the state. The principal resettlement agencies operating in the state include: the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (Dearborn); Archdiocese of Detroit (Detroit); Catholic Human Development Outreach (Grand Rapids); St. Vincent Catholic Charities Refugee Services (Lansing); Lutheran Social Services of Michigan Refugee and Immigration Services (Southfield, Battle Creek, Grand Rapids); Programs Assisting Refugee Acculturation (Grand Rapids); Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor).


The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the proportion of undocumented immigrants, as a share of the total population of Indiana, has increased 88% between 1990 and 2010, though the proportion of undocumented persons remains very small. It is important to emphasize that these numbers are only broad estimates. The actual numbers may be quite different. The figure below compares the estimated percent of the total population that is undocumented in Michigan among the 12 Midwestern states and the United States.


Nine percent of the population in Detroit suburbs were foreign-born in 2010, compared with 7% of urban and 2% of rural residents. Between 2000 and 2010 the population increased most dramatically in rural areas. An examination of data on all of the immigrants living in metropolitan areas in Michigan demonstrates that the overwhelming majority (63%) live in Detroit. There was very little change in the amount of foreign-born residents between 2000 and 2010 in the other major urban areas of Michigan.


In 2010, a larger percentage of immigrants (62%) than US-born residents (45%) were currently married in Michigan and across the region. Not surprisingly, the total household size of the foreign-born was also larger—3.4 individuals, compared with 2.5 for the native-born. Household members can include either relatives, or unrelated individuals. mmigration History
Michigan is unique among the Midwestern states in that its main source of foreign-born migrants have historically entered the U.S. by crossing the northernmost border in Canada. Due to the climate, pre-industrial agriculture was essentially impossible in much of the area. But French fur traders and missionaries from Montreal began arriving in the territory that would become Michigan sometime during the 17th century. The French were constructing forts at the Straits of Mackinac as early as 1671, and had founded a settlement at the site that is now Detroit by 1701. Over the following century, economic turmoil in Canada sent large numbers of migrants over the border to seek their fortune in the Michigan territory. By 1870, Canadians made up a majority of the foreign-born population of the state and even outnumbered native-born migrants from other states in many regions, particularly between Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron (known as the “thumb” on a map), and much of the northern half of the Lower Peninsula. As with many states in the Midwest, Michigan gained a sizeable German-born population following the failed revolutions of 1848. As the logging and iron mining industries began surging during the latter decades of that century, Michigan’s immigrant population grew in diversity. Finns sought out the mines of the western part of the peninsula; Swedes joined the logging camps, as did numerous Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and more Canadians. By 1920, however, the ore and timber was largely spent, and a great exodus offoreign-born workers decimated the state’s population. Yet the fortuitous timing of the Detroit auto boom of the 1930s quickly revitalized the state’s stagnating economy and renewed its appeal to foreign-born workers. Poles, Italians, Russians, Hungarians, Romanians and Greeks all flocked to the Motor City to work in the automobile plants and steel mills. Yet Canadian immigrants continued to account for a substantial part of the state’s foreign-born population. As late as 1980, a majority of immigrants in Michigan hailed from beyond the state’s northern border. By 1990, however, Asian and European immigrants significantly outnumbered those from Canada; and by 2000, Hispanic immigrants had surpassed the Canadian population as well.


In its simplest form ‘immigrant assimilation’ refers to a process whereby, over time, immigrants become indistinguishable from native-born residents. This process is neither one-way, nor linear, and not all changes lead to improved status. It also ignores the myriad ways in which native-born residents are influenced by immigrants. To the general public two of the most visible markers of assimilation are language proficiency and socio-economic status. Clusters of poor, ethnically or racially distinct foreign-born residents with low levels of schooling and English proficiency perpetuate perceptions of difference and foster the impression that contemporary immigrants are not assimilating as quickly as white Europeans who came to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, such perceptions are rarely accompanied by analyses of barriers to assimilation, or support for programs that might accelerate the integration of new immigrants. Differences in such measures as English language ability, home ownership and income depend upon much more than whether an individual was born outside or inside of the U.S. There are important differences in the ease of assimilation that depend upon the age and skill level that an immigrant has when he or she enters the country, and the kinds of opportunities that are available after arrival. It is important to keep these factors in mind when comparing the experiences of immigrants in various states or regions of the U.S.


The general public often perceives immigrants to be concentrated in low-level jobs, but in actuality immigrant workers are fairly well dispersed across the skills spectrum; the most rapid growth in the employment of immigrants since 2000 has been in middle-skilled jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a college degree. However the greatest increase in projected numbers of new jobs are in those that require low-levels of education and training. Between 1990 and 2006, the share of immigrant workers in each of the four employment sectors increased dramatically and outpaced the increase in native-born workers’ jobs in rate of increase, but not in absolute numbers, with the exception of construction. Median earnings for the foreign-born and native-born in Michigan are shown below for 2010, and then median earnings of the foreign-born are further stratified by period of entry. It can be noted that the foreign-born who arrived in the earlier waves before 1990, or between 1990 and 2000, have higher median earnings than those who have arrived more recently.


In 2006, 46% of foreign-born workers earned “family-sustaining wages,” compared to 59% of native-born workers. The percentages of foreign-born and native-born living below 100% of the poverty level in Michigan are shown below for 2010. One indication of assimilation over time is that the poverty rate for naturalized citizens was considerably lower than that for non-citizens, and even lower than that for native-born citizens. Because immigrants must be legal permanent residents for at least five years before naturalizing, the income difference may indicate that incomes are improving over time. It could also be the result of a “self selection” effect, whereby those individuals who elect to become citizens, and who are motivated to learn enough English and civics to pass the citizenship test are also those who will achieve some economic success. It is likely that both factors are at work. Immigrants who were born in Asia and Europe had considerably higher mean incomes than those born in Latin America (not shown). Some kinds of demographic and socio-economic data are only available for racial/ethnic groups, rather than for immigrants. In the absence of data on such measures as home or business ownership among immigrant groups if may be of interest to compare these measures for Hispanics or Asians with the important caveat that the comparisons incluce a majority of native-born residents. Data on business ownership from the 2010 Census shows that the total Asian population (native- and foreign-born) in Michigan own businesses in the state equal to their share of the total population; however, consistent with Midwest trends, the Hispanic population own businesses at a lower rate than their proportion of the population. Although the percentages of Michigan businesses owned by native- or foreign-born Asians and Hispanics are small, they account for 21,589 and 10,770 firms respectively. The positive impact of immigrant integration into the business sector in Michigan is additionally indicated by the fact that in 2007 immigrant businesses had combined sales and receipts of $11.6 billion in Michigan, and employed 84,801 workers.


Asians and Hispanics/Latinos have rates of home ownership that are similar to those in other Midwest states. In the 2007 American Community Survey, the percentage of all Hispanics (foreign-born and native-born) who were homeowners was 37%. Of the entire Asian population in Michigan, 61% were homeowners.


Immigrants in Michigan, and throughout the Midwest, had both higher and lower levels of education than native-born residents in 2010. By this we mean that they were both much more likely to have less than a high school diploma, and slightly more likely to have a graduate or professional degree. Educational attainment is a very important dimension of integration, as it is strongly related to other dimensions of integration such as income and English language proficiency. Nationally and in the Midwest, the children of immigrants tend to achieve higher levels of education than their parents, although Caucasian and Asian youth go further in school than do Hispanics (or African Americans, few of whom are foreign-born). In Michigan, graduation rates were lower for Hispanic students (foreign-born and native-born combined) than for their Caucasian and Asian peers. Similarly, the Hispanic dropout rate in Michigan in the 2007-2008 school year (10.3%) was over two times that of White students (4.3%) and over twice the rate for Asian students (3.6%). State testing data has come under scrutiny in recent years because of the connection between measures of student performance and federal funding levels. However, if the data are accurate, state tests in Michigan leave some room for optimism regarding improved student performance. According to the U.S. Department of Education, grade 8 students from all racial and ethnic groups demonstrated improved scores on state assessments of math and reading between 2004-05 and 2009-10, with an all-student increase of 8% in math and 14% in reading. The scores for Hispanic students went up at higher rates than these state-wide averages. Despite the challenges facing Hispanic students, national data show that second generation immigrants exceed their parents’ education levels. Higher educational attainment among members of the second-generation is not specific to Mexicans; it is consistent across all immigrant groups.


English Proficiency is self-reported in the Census and American Community Survey. Respondents can respond that they do not speak English, speak English only, or speak another language in addition to English. This final group is then divided further as they indicate how well they speak English as either “Very well,” “Well,” or “Not well.” The chart below compares English Proficiency in the foreign-born population, showing the percent of the foreign-born who identified themselves as speaking English “Well,” “Very Well,” or as their native/only language. There was a slight increase in the percentage of those speaking English well or better from 2000 to 2010 that is not significant; small levels of change may be due to sampling error; larger differences are likely be due to a combination of English language learning by foreign-born over time and higher English proficiency levels of more recent immigrants. In 2010, 81% of immigrants spoke English well, very well or fluently. Levels of English language learning vary significantly within and between immigrant groups. More important than country of origin is the age at which an individual entered the U.S., and his or her level of education and literacy in their native language. In Michigan, 9% of the total state population spoke a language other than English at home in 2010, and 3% of the total population spoke English less than very well. Two percent of households were linguistically isolated (meaning that all members of the household age 14 and over were limited English proficient). The percentage of foreign-born residents who are limited English proficient (LEP) has remained relatively high over the years. As would be expected, the children of immigrants in speak English at a much higher average rate than the total population of foreign-born in the state. Similarly, immigrants who have naturalized as U.S. citizens (and who are likely to have been in the country longer) have lower rates of LEP than noncitizens. Linguistic integration, like other measures of integration, varies among different immigrant groups. Among the foreign-born ages five and older in Michigan in 2009, those who spoke Spanish at home had the highest percent LEP, compared to speakers of Asian and Pacific, Indo-European, or other languages at home. Though Hispanics in Michigan and across the Midwest are more likely to be LEP than other groups, national data show that, in comparison to predominantly white, European immigrants from the early 20th Century, contemporary Hispanic and Latino immigrants learn English at faster rates within the first five years of arrival in the United States. The same is true for the population of immigrants who arrived in the country between 1980 and 2000.


One of the clearest measures of integration is the rate at which immigrants become naturalized citizens of the United States. Naturalization not only means becoming an American citizen, but generally also requires a modest demonstration of knowledge of American civics, history and basic English language skills. In Michigan, 49% of all immigrants were naturalized citizens in 2010. Of immigrants in Michigan who entered the United States before 1980, 80% were citizens in 2009, similar to the national average. Not surprisingly, immigrants who have been in the country the longest are most likely to naturalize. The figures below compare the share of the immigrant population in Michigan compared with other states in the Midwest, and the growth of that population between 1990 and 2010. In the 2008 elections, 6% of registered voters in Michigan were naturalized citizens or the U.S.-born children of immigrants. This proportion of the voting population is bound to rise, considering that the foreign-born voting-eligible population increased by 26% from 2000-2006, and that 86% of children with immigrant parents in Michigan were U.S. citizens in 2009. As of 2012, the Asian population in Michigan does have representation in the state legislature in an equal proportion to their share of the population (2.4%), at 3%. However, while 4% of the total population in Michigan is Hispanic, only 1% of state legislators are ethnically Hispanic.


Tomas Jiminez explained the value of intermarriage as an indication of integration by saying, “When individuals marry each other without regard to ethno-racial or national origin, it indicates that the social boundaries between groups are highly permeable.” Jiminez also highlighted the interconnection of various integration measures by pointing out that intermarriage rates are determined, in part, by English language acquisition and socioeconomic status, which shape opportunities to interact with those of different ethnic or national origins. Data on inter-marriages between immigrants and native-born residents is not available, but between 2008 and 2010, 13% of all marriages in Michigan were interracial or interethnic. While lower than the national average of 15%, this figure is higher than the average in the Midwest (11%).



Nineteen immigration-related bills have been passed by the Michigan legislature since 2008. Recent legislative activity in the state has generally been supportive of immigrants, although the legislature has curtailed access to public benefits for undocumented immigrants.


2011 – Personal Identification Card Electronic Verification (MI S 494). Non-citizens may apply for a drivers license or state-issued identification card, by submitting documentation of their immigration status, demonstrating legal presence in the United States, and submitting documentation proving their identity. 2011 – Special Fraud Control Fund (MI H 4408). This bill restricts unauthorized workers from receiving employment benefits, and requires applicants for employment benefits to provide proof of lawful status. 2011 – Assistance Benefits (MI H 4409). This bill requires applicants for family independence and assistance programs to have their immigration status verified. Only U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, and refugees are eligible to receive assistance benefits. 2011 – Sex Offender Registry (MI S 189). The immigration documents of sex offenders must be registered with the state. 2010 – Darfur Atrocities (MI HCR 51). This resolution denounces the atrocities taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan. The U.S Congress and the President of the United States are urged to take action in all ways possible to alleviate the suffering of the people of Darfur and those who are living as refugees in Chad, as well as to facilitate a lasting political settlement in the region. 2010 – Department of Agriculture (MI H 5875). This budget bill includes a provision requiring the department of agriculture to apply for all federal funds for which it is eligible that can be used to support the migrant labor housing program. 2009 – Agriculture Budget (MI S 237). This budget bill includes a provision for funding to support migrant housing. 2009 – Human Services (MI S 248). This bill provides funding for refugee programs and permits legal immigrants to receive disability assistance.


According to the National Council of La Raza, an Arizona-style law enforcement bill was still under consideration by the Michigan legislature, as of the end of 2011. The measure had already been rejected in Michigan during the 2010 legislative session. 2010 – Community Health (MI S 1152). This budget bill would have restricted mental health funds from being used to provide services to illegal immigrants. The provision was line-item vetoed by the governor. 2010 – Department of Corrections (MI S 1153). This law enforcement appropriations bill provided funding for the state criminal alien assistance program. It was line-item vetoed by the governor. 2010 – General Government (MI H 5880). This budget bill would have included a statement that declares it detrimental to the state of Michigan, its residents, and the economy for any vendor to use unauthorized labor to provide services in the state. The statement was line-item vetoed by the governor. 2010 – Human Services (MI H 5882). This budget bill would have provided eligibility for supplemental security income to aliens who have been exempted from citizenship requirements. The bill also would have made refugees or asylees who have exhausted their eligibility for federal supplemental security income able to receive benefits under the state disability assistance program. The provision was line-item vetoed by the governor.

Labor Force Data

The proportion of immigrants in the U.S. labor force almost doubled between 1990 and 2010—from 9 to 16%, at a time when the percentage of native-born workers decreased from 91 to 84%. Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it grew at a rate that was seven times faster than that for the native-born workforce. Almost half of immigrant workers in Michigan were born in Asia, and almost a quarter are from Europe. Immigrant workers in the state make up a smaller percentage of the labor force than in the U.S. as a whole. The top industries employing immigrants and U.S.-born workers in Michigan in the state are similar, although foreign-born workers are more likely to work in Professional, Scientific, Management, Administrative and Waste Management, and are not heavily employed in retail trade. Michigan had the highest state-wide unemployment rate in January of 2011 in the Midwest; immigrants in the construction industry (not shown) were particularly hard-hit. In spite of the recession, demand for immigrant workers continued, and the percentage of foreign-born civilian workers increased by 18% in Michigan and by 40% nationally from 2000-2009. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an increased need for workers in a variety of high-skilled and low-skilled occupations, several of which have a shortage of U.S.-born workers. Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it is growing at a much faster rate than the native-born workforce. The foreign-born workforce in the Michigan grew while the native-born labor force over the period from 1990 to 2010.


Of all the states in the Midwest region, Michigan–and particularly Detroit– has been the hardest hit by the recession.  Michigan also had the lowest rate of change in the foreign-born population between 1990 and 2010 (65%).  Policies that attract and retain  foreign-born workers will be key to the future prosperity of the state. The most dramatic demographic shift in the United States today is the aging of the population—a development that increases the tax burden on young workers who make payroll contributions to cover the costs of Social Security and Medicare. Aging has been accelerated by the out-migration of young native-born workers, a phenomenon that Rogerson and Kim aptly call “the emptying of the Bread Basket of its breadwinners.” A steady influx of immigrant workers is essential to maintaining a young and productive work force

Who's Involved

  • Lizabeth Ardisana, Chief Executive Officer, ASG Renaissance

    Lizabeth Ardisana is the principal owner and chief executive officer of ASG Renaissance. Ardisana began her career at Ford Motor Company as an engineer and held several management positions in vehicle development, product planning and marketing during her 14 years at Ford. Ardisana is an active leader in the Southeast Michigan and Hispanic business communities. She was recently recognized by Crain’s Detroit Business as one of Metro Detroit’s Most Influential Women and by the Detroit News as a “Michiganian of the Year,” and the Hispanic Businesswoman of the Year for the Midwest Region by the National Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

  • Maria Nevai, Manager, Global Michigan, Michigan Economic Development Corporation

    Maria Nevai has provided leadership for the Global Michigan Initiative (GMI), part of Michigan’s statewide strategy for economic growth and reinvention, which leverages foreign-born talent, investors, entrepreneurs, and global connections to expedite positive results. Since GMI’s inception in early 2011, Maria has helped convene and cultivate relationships with cultural group leaders, facilitate input through a consultative approach resulting in the strategic plan, support the efforts of Global Detroit initiatives, implement regional strategies, and champion statewide engagement and collaboration by partners and stakeholders. Maria serves as a member of Global Michigan’s Steering Committee and as an advisor to Global Detroit’s Global Talent Retention Initiative.

  • Steve Tobocman, Director, Global Detroit

    Steve Tobocman has spent the past four years spearheading Global Detroit, a regional economic revitalization strategy for the Detroit area focused on immigration and global connections. From 2003-2008, Steve served as the State Representative from Michigan 12th State House District in southwestern Detroit, one of the state’s largest immigrant communities. Steve directs Global Detroit as the principal of New Solutions Group, a mission-driven consulting firm focused on catalyzing smart, innovative, and collaborative solutions for the common good.  Steve also co-directors the Michigan Political Leadership Program at Michigan State University, one of the nation’s premiere bipartisan political training programs for elected officials.



  • Fay Beydoun – American Arab Chamber of Commerce
  • Global Detroit
  • Mayor Bobby J. Hopewell – Mayor of Kalamazoo
  • Dr. Jamie C. Hsu – Chairman, Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission
  • Hassan Jaber – Executive Director, ACCESS
  • Karen Majewski – Mayor, City of Hamtramck
  • Michigan Economic Center
  • Omobonike Odegbami – Vice Chancellor, International Programs and Global Partnerships, Wayne County Community College District
  • Monica E. Stevens – MES Consulting Services, LLC
  • Athena Trentin – Director, Global Talent Retention Initiative
  • John Van Camp – President and CEO, Southwest Solutions
  • Dayne Walling – Mayor, City of Flint

State Events

To engage a broad community of Midwesterners in a conversation about immigration the “Task Force on Immigration and U.S. Economic Competitiveness: A View from the Midwest” has gone on the road to learn more about the immigrant communities throughout the region. The forums highlighted how immigrants contribute to local economies and the integration challenges local communities are facing, among other issues. 8 forums were held in the late summer and early fall. Local leaders participated. The diverse canvas of immigrant communities and local issues was put on full display.

A View from Detroit


Moderated by Steve Tobocman, Director, Global Detroit
. In collaboration with Global Detroit and ImmigrationWorks, USA.