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Guest commentary: Michigan should avoid divisive immigration laws

Published on Thu, Jul 14, 2011

Gov. Rick Snyder on Monday will make his first major policy speech on immigration. Snyder already has signaled his opposition to an Arizona-style immigration bill, saying any such measure would further divide our state. Here's why that's a wise position.

Our immigration system has no capacity to deal with some 12 million undocumented people already in this country. Deportation is tearing families apart, and a backlog in processing applications creates agonizingly long wait times. Reports of overzealous immigration enforcement -- including stakeouts at a Detroit elementary school -- are only the most recent examples of why we must overhaul this system. But fair, humane legislation demands a comprehensive approach from the White House, not the statehouse.

Immigration bills were introduced in 23 states last year. At least five states have enacted "show me your papers" laws. Arizona blazed the path in 2010 with a sweeping measure that makes it a crime for people to fail to carry immigration documents, and gives police broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.

A blatantly unconstitutional Alabama law goes even further, requiring school officials to verify the immigration status of children and their parents, authorizing police to demand papers during traffic stops, and even criminalizing Alabama residents for day-to-day interactions with undocumented individuals.

Such patchwork, state-by-state measures virtually guarantee the proliferation of racial profiling -- an issue with which the Arab-American community is all too familiar.

A 2008 Justice Department study of post-9/11 law enforcement in Arab-American communities shows many people were troubled by increased government scrutiny. Some said they were more afraid of law enforcement agencies than they were of hate crimes. This fear has caused many communities to sever the important ties they had forged with local law enforcement through decades of community-policing efforts.

Michigan can ill afford such destructive and polarizing policies. In the only state in the nation that lost population over the past decade, immigration is one economic bright spot. While immigrants make up about 6% of Michigan's population, they earn 44% of all engineering master's degrees and 62% of all PhDs in engineering, according to a study by the Michigan League for Human Services. The study also reports that immigrants were responsible for 32.8% of the state's high-tech start-ups between 1995 and 2006.

Some of the only Michigan communities to successfully reverse the exodus are those like Dearborn, where one-third of the residents are Arab American and where a steady influx of immigrants continues to drive growth. What's more, the Immigration Policy Center found that Arab-American employment in metro Detroit accounted for $7.7 billion in income in 2009, generating an estimated $554 million in annual state tax revenue for Michigan.

Immigrants also tend to become involved in their communities through schools and enjoyment of shared open spaces, bringing welcome vitality to a community. Mexicantown in Detroit is a vibrant residential and commercial neighborhood that stands in stark contrast to scenes of abandonment and decay that blight other parts of the city.

As Michiganders flee our state for jobs and livelihoods, we need leaders who are willing to think broadly -- globally, in the most literal sense of the word -- about ways to sustain and reinvigorate our economy. We must work together to foster an atmosphere that values diversity and look to Washington, not Lansing, for fair, comprehensive immigration reform.

Published in the Detroit Free Press | Read Article