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Gateways for Growth or Gateways for Economic and Immigrant Justice: Another look at the new report on the economic contributions of immigrants in Kent County

September 17, 2018

Last week, a new report on the economic impact that immigrants have in Kent County was rolled out at two separate events, one at the Goei Center and one at Cesar Chavez School.

One of the main groups behind the report is Samaritas, a refugee resettlement program. In a recent MLive article, a representative of Samaritas as quoted as saying:

“They are contributing to a lot of vital sectors in our community,” said Joel Lautenbach, executive director of development at Samaritas, a Detroit-based social service agency that focuses on refugee resettlement. “They are a very important source of labor in an economy that has long talked about a shortage of labor.”

Gateways for Growth or Gateways for Economic and Immigrant Justice

It is important to recognize that in the current economic reality of West Michigan, immigrants do contribute a great deal to the economy. The New Americans in Kent County report emphasizes this economic impact by stating that in 2016,  immigrants earned $1.3 billion dollars in Kent County and contributed $219.4 million in federal taxes and $101.5 million in state and local taxes.

This data flies in the face of the anti-immigrant messaging, which believes that immigrants don’t pay taxes and then use all kinds of social services that the rest of society pays for. The fact is that immigrants, whether they are documented or undocumented, pay taxes. However, just because this report reveals that immigrants pay taxes and contribute to the economy, it should not cause us to simply use the argument that immigrants are good because they bolster the regions economy. It is important that we look deeper into the data and question what it means for immigrant just.

The notion that immigrants are good for the economy should not be our argument for why all immigrants should be allowed to live in our community. In fact, the argument is flawed. The report notes that there are a few sectors where immigrants tend to find work, such as assemblers, fabricators, agricultural, production, cooks and packagers. These are all jobs that do not pay very well and in the case of agricultural work, may not even pay minimum wage.

The reality is that many immigrants who work in construction, assembly, agriculture, the restaurant industry and other service jobs do not make a livable wage. Most of these immigrant workers are exploited, meaning that not only do they make a low wages, they make money for business owners who take advantage of them. Think about all the immigrants who work as farmworkers, how hard they work and how little they get paid. According to the State of Michigan, the food and agricultural sector contributes $101.2 billion to the state’s economy every year. However, the fact is that most of this money stays in the hands of the agribusiness sector as compared to the immigrant population who does the bulk of the agricultural labor. 

This is exactly why the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and the Right Place Inc. were involved in the promotion of this new report. Both of those entities don’t care about economic justice, they just want to promote economic growth, even if it is at the expense of certain populations, in this case the immigrant population. In addition, the GR Chamber of Commerce is opposed to any kind of organized labor force and works to influence state policy to make sure that wages, benefits and pensions are low or are eliminated. Again, these organizations support increased money coming into the community, they just don’t believe in economic justice.

Another reason why putting an emphasis on what immigrants contribute to the economy is that it means we put economic value above all else. We don’t value immigrants for their culture, for their creativity, for their skills and for their commitment to their respective communities. Why do we always emphasize the economic contribution of immigrants above all else?

The report also does not take into consideration the amount of money that immigrants send back to countries of origin to support other family members, what is called remittance. It would be interesting to see some data on how much remittances are sent to countries of origin from Kent County. Why? First, remittances would underscore the fact that for many immigrants, they rarely get by because they are not only supporting themselves or family members in Kent County, they are supporting family members in their country of origin. Secondly, remittances helps put an emphasis on why people come to the US and why they send so much money home. This would focus our larger collective discussion around the desperation that many immigrants experience, when they flee their own country, come to the US, experience economic exploitation here, along with political repression. As the report notes a high number of immigrants are from Mexico and Guatemala, two countries that US foreign policy has devastated, both economically and militarily. This kind of expanded understanding of why so many immigrants are coming to West Michigan, would force us to see the humanity of people, rather than to fixate on how much money they bring to the area.

This brings us to one of the most important pieces of data in the report, the number of undocumented people living in Kent County. In 2016, the report states that there were a total of 13,384 undocumented immigrants living in Kent County. In early 2017, the Trump administration made it very clear that if you are an undocumented immigrant, you will be a target. Indeed, as GR Rapid Response to ICE has made known, every week members of the undocumented community are be terrorized by ICE agents, often being arrested, detained and facing possible deportation. If Kent County, the City of Grand Rapids or any other local municipality really values the immigrant community, they would declare themselves a sanctuary city and Kent County would end its contract with ICE. You can’t celebrate immigrants for their economic contributions to the area and then not work to oppose federal policy that seeks to treat them as criminals just because they don’t have the documentation the government requires.

The new report on the economic contributions is a good start in terms of recognizing the value of the immigrant community in Kent County, but until we expand the conversation that includes the following:

  • Remittances of immigrants
  • Economic exploitation of immigrants
  • Reasons why people fled countries of origin
  • How US Foreign Policy is a major cause of migration
  • How state violence, especially through ICE oppresses the immigrant community

……….. Kent County will never be a welcoming community for immigrants.

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