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Immigration Emerging As Major State Issue

March 12, 2024

Immigration is shaping up to be one of the major issues discussed during the 2024 election cycle, with talking points already being shaped and refuted during President Joe Biden’s State of the State Address.

A Monmouth University poll at the end of February found that eight in 10 Americans see illegal immigration as a problem with a larger concern being seen among Republicans.

“Illegal immigration has taken center stage as a defining issue this presidential election year,” Monmouth University Polling Institute Patrick Murray said.

Murray said immigration was also the biggest policy weakness of the Democrats, but it is also something that could end up moving to the state level.

Three academics said there isn’t much that states can do about immigrants, documented or not, refugees or asylum seekers – all of which are separated through immigration law – despite claims by both Democrats and Republicans in the state.

Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) and other Republicans are currently pushing a bill to prevent Michigan cities from becoming “sanctuary cities,” which Runestad claims were cities that refused to enforce federal immigration laws.

“The governor says this is a welcoming state and I don’t see her making any distinction about legal versus illegal immigrants,” Runestad said.

He said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was encouraging and aiding in illegal immigration to the state. He made claims there were large amounts of undocumented people “pouring into Detroit.” He said East Lansing and Ann Arbor, while they weren’t really sanctuary cities, were acting the part.

Runestad said the entire plan was for the Democrats to bring in the undocumented people and then make them legal through amnesty right before the election and get them to vote Democrat.

“Then they will create the one-party nation that they’ve always dreamt of. That’s their plan,” he said.

The Senator defined legal immigration as the people who go through the “normal” process. He said refugees are people with special need. The asylum seekers were the “more dicey” immigrants and were what needed to be watched.

“These people coming across are normally classified as illegal immigrants,” he said.

He claimed that the backlog of asylum court cases was between seven to 10 years, which was echoed by Biden during his State of the State address. Runestad said they were getting phones and told they would be in touch and just released into the United States.

“The whole thing is just a complete canard. The whole thing with asylum seekers is an absolute charade by the Democrats to get as many people in here as possible,” he said.

Runestad also made claims that those asylum seekers were the major source of fentanyl smuggling. However, the Cato Institute found that 0.02% of the people arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol were in possession of fentanyl and U.S. citizens made up 86.3% of the convicted fentanyl drug traffickers.

Whitmer said there were indeed immigrants coming into Michigan from other states, but because they were being shipped out of the southern states and most of the time don’t even know where they are headed.

“It’s cruel. It’s ignorant. For the people coming here, it’s our duty to try to do what we can to get them into the legal immigration system,” Whitmer said.

She said the U.S. Congress had completely failed the nation for decades on immigration.

“So, our job is if people get here, what do we do? And that’s the problem we’re trying to solve for, but that does not absolve Congress of their duty of solving the immigration problem,” Whitmer said.

One way to solve that problem was the Office of Global Michigan. It was set up in the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) and works with many nonprofits to help asylum seekers and refugees access services they need to get into the immigration system and get access to social services.

There were 2,583 refugees, and 2,075 Cuban and Haitians being helped by the office, according to the numbers sent by LEO. There were also a number of Ukrainian refugees, but those were being handled by the federal government.

The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration showed in 2023 there were 2,437 refugees coming to Michigan, with the largest numbers coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, and the most from Syria. Other countries include El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, Pakistan, Palestine, Yemen, Sudan, Nicaragua, and Eritrea.

Michigan State University American Politics Professor Nura Sediqe said the resettling of refugees and asylees tend to gravitate toward the areas that have a shared language and social service capacity with nonprofits that can help facilitate.

Along with Latino populations, Michigan is also home to several large Arabic-language and Middle Eastern populations in Detroit. There are also many Burmese refugees in Battle Creek, and Afghan and Congolese populations in Grand Rapids.

Sediqe pointed to the Yemeni population that has taken refuge in the old Polish city of Hamtramck, which also has populations of Bangladeshi and Pakistani people.

Most of those populations were helped by the nonprofits Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas, according to the Refugee Council USA. Both nonprofits work with the Office of Global Michigan.

She said there were many organizations that helped the incoming populations find their footing through communities.

“It helps sort of diminish some of the anxiety of the transition, because it’s not just government bureaucrats working on this,” she said.

Sediqe said this was about all a state could do policy-wise, besides setting up sanctuary cities, which she said doesn’t block federal law enforcement from deportation, but just doesn’t alert them when someone is encountered that could be under asylum status.

“That’s one way states and even local cities have reacted to help decrease fear among immigrants,” she said.

She said when people politicize immigration they tend to think of some nebulous idea, not their neighbor, the cashier at the grocery store, or a nurse at the hospital.

“When you realize that they come in just trying to build a new life for themselves, it removes the fear and humanizes their experience and makes you realize you have more common experiences,” Sediqe said.

She did agree that the current housing shortage in Michigan was a challenge from the standpoint of immigration.

Western Michigan University Economics Professor Susan Pozo, however, said that was actually the solution to the problem.

“If we give those people the ability to work, they could build the houses, because there are plenty of refugees who have those types of skills. They come from places where they were building their own houses,” Pozo said.

She said any influx of immigrants was good for an economy, because even the simplest of models show the more ability a place has to produce goods, the better off it is and one of those factors is labor.

“The short story is that labor is a resource and immigrants are labor. For the most part, immigrants that come to the United States are coming to work and so they’re going to contribute to the labor force and therefore to the output of the economy,” she said.

She said there isn’t really a tipping point for that economic output either, and the effects of the labor shortage could still be seen from the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns.

She said the housing shortage was a temporary bottleneck to any economic expansion that would be boosted by any influx in immigrant populations, because that’s how markets worked.

“Is it three months, is it five years, is it two days, but they will be alleviated,” she said.

She said one of the ways states could help refugee and asylee transition would be to look at the credentials of the people to try to help them to get back to the higher-skill professions they left.

She pointed to something like a dental hygienist and asked if there was a way to get that person revalidated quickly in the state.

“It’s my understanding that we have a tremendous workforce here that is being wasted, not through any fault of their own,” Pozo said.

University of Michigan Professor of Public Policy Ann Chih Lin said while states can do things “around the edges” of immigration policy, that ultimately it was up to Congress and that any type of promotion for bringing populations by states would need their approval.

“Citizenship is not a local issue. It’s always going to be a national issue, but states are really able to say here’s the kind of people we need,” Lin said.

She said different parts of the country have different needs and different immigrant populations also had different needs.

She said there hasn’t been a good conversation about immigration in the United States, and it was a conversation that was needed on a federal level.

“I think the first thing I want to say about undocumented immigration is if you don’t have legal channels for immigration, you will always have undocumented immigrants. Full stop,” Lin said.

She pointed to the asylum seekers.

“These asylees are coming to the U.S. not as undocumented immigrants. They’re coming trying to be legal immigrants and they are coming asking for relief,” she said.

She said the argument about if the asylees qualify or not was for the legal system to determine, but the people asking for asylum were not lawyers. She said the capacity for refugees had been seriously eroded, which was why most were seeking asylum.

“They’re not trying to game the system. They don’t know whether they’re eligible and that’s not their fault. It’s our job to figure out whether they’re eligible and we’re not stepping up to the plate,” Lin said.

She said those who claim asylum while they were in the country weren’t able to have work permits until they’ve been in the U.S. for at least six months.

“We’re either forcing them to work illegally because they have to provide for their families or we’re really putting an exceptional burden upon states and cities to provide for their needs,” she said.

Lin said in the mind of most people that the differences in types of immigration were more complex than something that can be explained. She said it comes down to what immigration brings to their lives already.

“Immigrants are part of the American fabric. They know that our country is and was not only formed by immigration, but it’s always been dependent on immigration, that immigrants and the United States exist in this symbiotic relationship where they depend on each other and they constantly make each other,” Lin said.

She said policy should be aimed at making immigration a “win-win” situation, instead of a “lose-lose” situation.

“They’re going to come legally any way they can and if you leave them with no choice, they will come illegal,” she said.


Article courtesy MIRS News for SBAM’s Lansing Watchdog newsletter

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