For years, I have been advocating that immigration can be a powerful tool for economic growth. Now I have the perfect example to share.
In Detroit, Michigan, there’s an organization called Global Detroit, an economic development initiative that centers immigrant inclusion as an economic growth strategy. Located in a city that in 2013 became the largest in the U.S. to file for bankruptcy and led by Steve Tobocman, a former Michigan state representative, Global Detroit operates programs that focus on global talent, immigrant entrepreneurship, and neighborhood development, while exploring how research, communications, and policy can be utilized to build vibrancy and inclusiveness into the regional economy.
In 2019, it launched a Global Entrepreneurs in Residence (Global EIR) program to assist immigrant startup entrepreneurs in the Detroit area.
The original Global EIR Coalition had been created about a half-decade earlier by startup immigration policy strategist Craig Montuori; Techstars co-founder Brad Feld, author and renowned venture investor at Foundry Group; and Harvard Business School lecturer, author, and Flybridge partner Jeff Bussgang. The Global EIR model utilizes a category of uncapped H-1B employment visas reserved for universities to allow entrepreneurs to divide their time between working at partnering universities and raising funds to establish and grow their own startup firms.
The first university to turn the model into reality was the University of Massachusetts — Boston’s Venture Development Center. Initially led by William Brah, and now by Bala Sundaram, vice provost for Research and Strategic Initiatives, the VDC has supported 81 founders who have raised $1.5 billion in venture capital and created some 2,500 jobs. Sundaram told me that the program is so successful that it cannot keep up with the applications from entrepreneurs and investors who want to participate.
Aijan Isakova, the VDC program director, is now working with Global Detroit as the Global EIR National Peer Network Coordinator as the program expands. Already Global Detroit has connected local entrepreneurs with part-time employment at the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and the College for Creative Studies. In three years, it has supported eight founders from seven companies who have raised over $15 million and created over 50 jobs.
Additionally, Global Detroit’s Global Talent Retention Initiative (GTRI) program has helped Michigan employers hire international students to fill critical talent gaps in the economy. Global Detroit has uncovered a unique set of research data tracking international students working full-time on the optional practical training (OPT) portion of their student visas, discovering that between 2004 and 2016, over 40,000 international students joined the Michigan workforce in this manner.
That catapulted Michigan into a 10th-place ranking among all other states based on the number of international students working under student visas during the 12-year period studied. The number of international students hired annually by Michigan companies grew by a remarkable 330% during that time.
In a press release, both the Michigan lieutenant governor and Global Detroit’s executive director expressed their excitement for the immense growth. “Attracting and retaining the talented students at our world-class universities is key to growing our economy, creating jobs, and building on Michigan’s heritage of innovation,” said Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II. “Global Detroit’s report highlighting international students’ $825+ million in annual contribution to Michigan’s economy shows the importance of building on our budget investment in statewide global talent retention efforts.”
Steve Tobocman, Global Detroit’s executive director, said: “The State of Michigan’s recent appropriation of funds, combined with the region’s recent $52 million federal Economic Development Administration grant to build a global epicenter of mobility, will enable Global Detroit, regional chambers of commerce and economic development organizations across the state, industry groups and companies to build talent pipelines that clearly position our state as a global leader in talent attraction and retention.”
There are many lessons to learn from Global Detroit. Here are two:
First, though some universities have partnered with Global EIR, more must do so in order for us to realize the true potential and benefit this program can have across the country to enable talented immigrant startup founders an immigration path for early-stage startups.
Second, if states are going to benefit from these programs through the jobs they create, the states must make the necessary investments. They must create and fund programs like Global Detroit. Ohio is doing something similar with its Global Cleveland initiative in Cleveland.
As a result of the resounding success Global Detroit has enjoyed, Michigan will be investing $5 million in expanding both Global EIR and GTRI statewide through funds appropriated for global attraction and retention programs in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget passed by the Republican Legislature and signed into law in July 2022.
Detroit’s declaration of bankruptcy followed the previous recession, when the economy was hit hard and needed to find creative ways to revive itself. Realizing immigration as an economic strategy, and creating and investing in programs, was critical for its regrowth.
Now, as we enter another, possibly worse recession, Global Detroit and Michigan are the perfect models to demonstrate how harnessing immigrant talent can bring economic growth to American cities everywhere.
Tahmina Watson is the founding attorney of Watson Immigration Law in Seattle, where she practices US immigration law focusing on business immigration. She has been blogging about immigration law since 2008 and has written numerous articles in many publications. She is the author of Legal Heroes in the Trump Era: Be Inspired. Expand Your Impact. Change the World and The Startup Visa: Key to Job Growth and Economic Prosperity in America. She is also the founder of The Washington Immigrant Defense Network (WIDEN), which funds and facilitates legal representation in the immigration courtroom, and co-founder of Airport Lawyers, which provided critical services during the early travel bans. Tahmina is regularly quoted in the media and is the host of the podcast Tahmina Talks Immigration. She is a Puget Sound Business Journal 2020 Women of Influence honoree. Business Insider recently named her as one of the top immigration attorneys in the U.S. that help tech startups. You can reach her by email at email@example.com, connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter at @tahminawatson.