Alum Steve Tobocman of Global Detroit, disrupting urban poverty, one new American at a time

December 4, 2015

Steve Tobocman (MPP/JD '97) is the director of Global Detroit, a non-profit that seeks to revitalize Michigan’s economy by making the region more attractive and welcoming to immigrants, international students, businesses, and investors. He speaks here with Afton Branche (MPA '16), a Ford School student, about the case for immigration in the city of Detroit. 

Q: Tell me about your role at Global Detroit. How did you get into this work?

Tobocman: When I was at the Ford School, I started working in community economic development in the city of Detroit. I’ve been really fortunate to have a variety of jobs in community economic development and that led to getting involved in politics and serving in the State Legislature for six years. Southwest Detroit has one of the state’s largest immigrant communities, and that’s the community that I represented in the State Legislature. I ended up being an immigrant-rights spokesperson on the legislature and worked on some legislation, including passing some immigrant consumer protection bills from notaries, as well as working on driver’s license issues, in-state tuition, and other things.

Q: I heard the This American Life episode about your work in the legislature, “Detroit is in the house.” Michigan term limits ended your service, but what did you do next?

Tobocman: In 2009, when I left the legislature, I became a consultant to the Detroit Regional Chamber Foundation, and we started looking at the contributions that immigrants bring to the region. What we found was a little shocking, in how strong the contributions of immigrants were to the region and could be. What we see is that immigrants are revitalizing neighborhoods, and providing important workforce opportunities for a state and a region that is rapidly aging. Given those things, we designed a series of strategies to better integrate and include immigrants in regional economic development strategies, which came out as a report in 2010. Over the last five years, we’ve been launching ideas related to that report. [For example], we launched an international student retention program with the University Research Corridor. We realized that many cities across the U.S. faced similar challenges as well as similar insights around immigration, and over the last five years about a dozen cities have joined us in doing this kind of work through a peer-network called the Welcoming Economies Global Network (WE Global).

Q: Immigration is often seen as a federal policy issue. What can states do to promote immigration and economic development?

Tobocman: The federal government regulates national policy related to who can be an immigrant and who can’t, as well as who is a refugee. But the integration of new Americans actually happens at the local level, and there’s been an increasing realization that this is a state and local issue. This whole notion of immigrant economic development is a rapidly emerging field, and we’re only beginning to tap into the creativity and the ideas which states could pursue.

The WE Global Network has sought to help local and state actors think through the opportunities that exist for better inclusion and integration of their immigrant community, and is beginning to identify and promote policies that work. One policy is creating state offices of new Americans. Michigan’s office has been instrumental in helping skilled immigrants (those with four or more years of college and professional backgrounds, training, and education) integrate into the economy. These are your engineers who are driving a taxi cab.

Q: What’s your take on the idea that hiring skilled immigrants may displace native-born Americans?

Tobocman: The reality is that every foreign worker who obtains their graduate STEM degree in the U.S. adds enough productivity and competitiveness in the labor force that they create 2.62 additional U.S. jobs. Largely, immigrants bring complementary workforce skills rather than competitive.

One thing to note in the work we’re doing at Global Detroit is that this ‘looking at how immigrants can play a role in the economy’ is an inclusive strategy. One of our initiatives is a program called ProsperUS Detroit. It’s a microenterprise training, lending, and support organization that works in five Detroit neighborhoods. We’ve trained close to 400 working-class Detroiters through a rigorous 11-session business planning course. About 85 percent of participants have been African American Detroiters. [Our insight is] that immigrants are critical to creating business opportunities in legacy cities across America, and [we want] to encourage that.

Q: Refugee resettlement has been in the news recently, as some elected officials after the Paris attacks questioned whether the U.S. should continue to accept refugees from the Middle East. What’s your take on that?

Tobocman: The reality is that we’ve been talking for months about how Michigan and other communities could be a part of alleviating this human crisis across the globe. Despite all the energy and announcements around that, Michigan has received less than 200 Syrian refugees. The reason that we’ve received so few is that the security process takes between 18 months and 2 years. The United States does have a very rigorous security clearance process.

[This controversy] should not derail the conversations we were having before about our historic role on the global stage. From my perspective, the “war on terror” is a war on extremism and radical religious fundamentalism, and the people who are fleeing the Middle East right now are folks who are being persecuted by those same extremists. Not only are there sound economic reasons for Michigan or Detroit to accept refugees, but a long-term strategy to protect American interests involves being welcoming to refugees who are fleeing the same type of persecution, tyranny, and religious fundamentalism and terrorism that we’re fighting against.

Q: You talk about extreme and religious fundamentalism being part of the problem, what do you mean by that? 

Tobocman: I do feel that the "war on terror," the term often used in the national media, is a war on extreme fundamentalism. From my personal perspective, it is not a war on Islam, but on extreme fundamentalists of various religious and ideological perspectives that justify killing civilians and innocent people. In my opinion religious fundamentalists (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) as well as the inequities between the global north and south, are at the source. We need to have frank dialogue about these issues if we are going to stop the atrocities in the world. Accepting [Syrian] refugees, victims of terrorist violence--and aligning American and Western interests with moderates, with actors who seek peace, with interests who seek to limit civilian casualties--should be part of the long-term effort to end terrorist violence. 

Q: Has the Detroit metro region historically been welcoming to refugees?

Tobocman: The state does pretty well in terms of overall number of refugees. Detroit resettles half of the state’s refugees, and Grand Rapids, Battle Creek and Lansing have taken in refugees over the last several decades as well. In general, people here adhere to Midwestern values, and tend to be friendly and welcoming of newcomers. I would describe us as a successful hub for refugee resettlement because of our longstanding connection to the Middle Eastern community. Statistically, we have settled more Iraqi refugees in the last decade than any other metro [region] in the country. Over the past several months, there have been a number of planning meetings about opportunities to locate new refugees in the city of Detroit and ensuring that the city is doing everything it can to support those families and integrate those families.

Q: What inspires you about Global Detroit’s work?

Tobocman: First of all, my grandparents emigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe as Jews in the early 20th century, just years before the Holocaust. My dad grew up in the immigrant experience, and very much looked to America as a place of freedom and opportunity. Working on immigration and helping folks who are seeking that opportunity is a very gratifying effort. One of the things we do is participate in naturalization ceremonies. To watch the glee in people who have come to pursue the American dream is a really special opportunity.

The second thing that inspires me about this work is that I’ve worked in urban and economic development for 20 years now and I’ve been involved in almost every strategy around trying to improve the quality of life for low-income, working-class Detroiters. I felt like my highest calling was to give back to Americans who suffer the most, [which is often] the urban poor.

What I’ve discovered the last five years working at Global Detroit is that, as powerful as these public interventions to revitalize cities have been, and as many lives as they impacted, immigration has been an even more powerful force in disrupting urban poverty and improving the quality of life in American cities. Immigration can have more impact more quickly and have less public cost than all the other strategies that I have worked on combined.