Michigan’s Friendliness to Immigration Seen as Key to Economic Development

May 24, 2011

By Peter Briggs

A need for economic transformation in Michigan has lead to some creative thinking and a new initiative from Republican Governor Rick Snyder that international educators should applaud. The Global Michigan Initiative aims to promote Michigan's economic prosperity by welcoming the best and the brightest from around the world and to include everyone in reinventing Michigan.

It starts with the premise that Michigan’s long tradition of reliance on a manufacturing economy will not return and that talent from abroad is key to fostering the innovation and entrepreneurship that will be the state’s way forward to economic revitalization. Snyder, a former business executive who is new to elective politics, has frequently voiced the opinion that it is in our state’s best interest to create an environment that is welcoming to immigration, and that includes international students and scholars. This does, of course, stand in stark contrast to so much of the anti-immigration policies that are sprouting up around the country.

Michigan’s recent economic woes are well documented, and the 2010 census showed that Michigan was the only one of fifty states to decline in population. As stated in the Global Michigan Initiative’s project definition, Governor Snyder has charged the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to find new ways to encourage highly talented immigrants and former Michiganders to come to Michigan to work and live. He has noted that individuals with advanced degrees and business investment ability make a tremendous difference in creating positive economic activity that benefits all of us and pointed to the fact that about half of all business startups in Silicon Valley have a foreign national as one of their founders.

Many industries that are currently experiencing growth around the world are finding that attracting the right talent is a key to success. When we help companies grow by retaining and attracting great talent in Michigan, it helps them grow faster and creates more jobs in our state. All of our communities, public and private organizations, businesses, associations, local economic development agencies, advocacy and faith based groups, universities, and colleges need to be involved in helping to build and execute a new statewide initiative for increased prosperity and economic vitality.

It is recognized that a THIRD of new high-tech startups established in Michigan over the past decade were started by immigrants. Only California and New Jersey have a greater percentage of immigrant-led startups, and in Silicon Valley, the percentage of startups begun by immigrants is a little more than HALF. Reports show that international students are three times as likely to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and that graduates in these STEM fields are much more likely to become involved with startup enterprises.

The Global Michigan Initiative planning team has formed eleven committees to address various aspects of attracting foreign investment, educating employers on taking advantage of immigration regulations, making Michigan friendlier to international visitors, and generally connecting immigration with local economic development and export strategies.

Along with former Michigan House Majority Leader Steve Tobocman, I am pleased to serve as co-chair of the International Student Retention Committee. Fellow NAFSA members Scott Cooper and Linda Seatts are also members of the committee. The purpose of our committee is to explore ways to retain the 23,600 international students enrolled at colleges and universities in Michigan as members of our state’s workforce. The committee hopes that students in the state will want to stay and participate in the state’s workforce if given the opportunity.

The work of the Global Michigan Initiative is just beginning, and it is too early to say how successful this initiative will be. Still, it will be an interesting story to follow the impact our work will have in helping revive Michigan’s economic fortunes and to see how the ideas generated differ so dramatically from the policies in other states.


Peter Briggs serves as co-chair of the International Student Retention Committee on Governor Snyder’s Global Michigan Initiative. He is a NAFSA member and has served as director of the Office for International Students and Scholars at Michigan State University since 2001. He has more than 30 years experience in the field of international students and scholars services.


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