Why Detroit Needs More Immigrants

The city's population has plummeted, devastating finances.

ByABC News
July 19, 2013, 12:12 PM

July 19, 2013— -- Detroit is desperate.

The city that was once home to a thriving auto manufacturing industry declared bankruptcy on Thursday, the largest municipality ever to do so.

One of the biggest economic problems is its declining population. As manufacturing has gone overseas, the city has bled people. Right now, it has just over 700,000 residents. That's down from it's peak of 1.86 million in 1950 and on par with how many people lived there in 1910, before the auto boom. The last decade or so has been particularly devastating.

However, some people are moving to Detroit: immigrants.

An area of Southwest Detroit called Mexicantown has been revitalized over the past several decades with new restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores that are generating revenue for the city.

Overall, however, Detroit's immigration population still lags behind the national average. Immigrants tend to follow jobs, and they tend to follow past waves of immigrants -- that's why areas like Chicago and New York have so many foreign-born residents.

Detroit doesn't have those magnets, at least not to the degree it needs.

Immigrants make up just 5 percent of the city's population, according to census data. That's far below the national average of 13 percent.

Immigration wouldn't be a magical cure for all of Detroit's maladies, but it would help.

Mexicantown, for example, is still a low-income area, mirroring the city's greater economic standing. But with the influx of new immigrants, the quality of life in that area has improved, according to Steve Tobocman, the director of Global Detroit, an organization seeking to create economic development through immigration. He's also a former city representative for that area.

"I don't think we're offering that immigration is a panacea," he said. "But that being said, I do think it may be the single great urban revitalization strategy in modern-day America, and it's one that doesn't cost tax dollars."

In a sort of backward way, the city has some characteristics that could be appealing to newcomers. Because of the economic decline, real estate is cheap, making it easier to open a business there than in the country's biggest metro areas. That's drawing some immigrants who first arrive in places like New York and Chicago, according to Tobocman.

The local government in Detroit has also taken some steps to make it a more appealing place for immigrants, like instituting a policy discouraging police from asking residents about their immigration status.

And the state of Michigan just changed its policy to allow undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition, a major stride for those seeking higher education.

That said, there are some obstacles.

Detroit is a border city: It sits across from the Canadian city of Windsor. Because of that, Border Patrol is active in the region. And they don't always stick to guarding the frontier.

In March 2011, a public school building engineer -- a Detroit native of Mexican descent -- was pulled over by a Border Patrol agent while driving. The agent asked for his visa or birth certificate and then interrogated him on the side of the road for an hour, one of several similar stories reported in The Atlantic Cities.

During that same month, federal immigration agents staked out a school in Southwest Detroit, questioning and detaining two families.

The agency involved, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), cleared itself of any wrongdoing later that year.