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New graduate seminar: Quantifying the economic impact of refugees in Detroit

April 4, 2017

Elisabeth Gerber, associate dean for research and policy engagement, has teamed up with Steve Tobocman (MPP/JD '97), executive director of Global Detroit, to lead an applied research course of 13 graduate students this semester.

In December 2016, Tobocman reached out to Gerber about the possibility of enlisting students to conduct a research project his organization had been looking to complete for two years: determining the economic impact of refugee resettlement in Metro Detroit. Gerber agreed to join the initiative and sent an email out to students, hoping to recruit at least two. They received 13 and were able to turn the project into a formal course.

The team, composed of students from the University of Michigan's Ford School and School of Urban Planning, is creating the foundation for the first-ever economic impact study of refugees in southeastern Michigan, and one of the first such studies conducted in the nation. The team will begin measuring local economic benefits from resettlement activities, refugees’ taxes and spent wages, and refugee-owned businesses in the four counties surrounding Metro Detroit. The methodology is modeled after similar studies completed recently in Columbus and Cleveland.

Tobocman, who has been working with nonprofit and governmental partners to build a local refugee resettlement collaborative, says the idea for a Metro Detroit study emerged when stakeholders in southeast Michigan heard about the impressive effects of the economic impact studies in Cleveland and Columbus.

These studies “have really opened people’s eyes to the benefits and job creation that refugees bring to a community,” Tobocman says. “They have also helped inspire other actors to engage in helping to resettle refugees and create mutually beneficial opportunities for them and their local communities.” Tobocman hopes to galvanize a similar level of creative problem-solving in southeast Michigan.

Students are equally invested in the project. Jeongmin Oh (MPP ’18) served in the South Korean Army, where he witnessed refugees fleeing North Korea. He joined the course because he wanted to learn more about how refugee resettlement could develop a local community’s economy. “In order to persuade those who disagree with refugee resettlement in a community," he says, "solid evidence is needed."

As a child of immigrants, Samantha Chu (MPP/MBA ’19) is passionate about helping to “bridge gaps in culture and knowledge that are so often the obstacles between immigrants and their host communities.” Before coming to the Ford School, Chu worked in the political asylum office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which sparked her interest in the larger network of issues and resources surrounding refugee resettlement in the U.S.

The study could not come at a better – or worse – time.

President Trump issued an unexpected executive order on January 27 temporarily suspending all refugee resettlement to the U.S. It also halved President Obama’s ceiling on refugee admissions for the fiscal year, from 110,000 to 50,000. That order, and the revised order that followed on March 6, were both blocked by federal judges. However, they will have a long-lasting impact on the resettlement process, as travel plans were canceled and uncertainty lingers.

The chaos following President Trump’s executive orders has reduced the resettlement process to a trickle for most agencies. Financial uncertainty deeply affects these organizations, which receive funding from the federal government for each refugee resettled.

The consequences on agencies in southeast Michigan have been devastating, says Tobocman. “One local agency reported decreasing their staff from 14 full-time equivalents (FTEs) to four."

According to Gerber, President Trump’s policies have both increased the urgency of the economic impact study and made it more difficult to complete, as overburdened resettlement agencies may not have the time or resources to provide the data needed to complete the analysis. As Chu puts it, “All of the actors involved are facing a time of unprecedented change,” and it’s challenging to find time for meta-analysis “when daily life right now is in flux.”

As a result, the team has shifted the work plan and timeline to allow for the delay. Yet, the work will continue to move forward, Gerber says: "Often the most urgent work is the hardest to accomplish."

In the meantime, students are also completing a qualitative study - interviewing local organizations and community leaders to better catalog resettlement processes in the region - to enhance the quantitative economic analysis. Gerber hopes this analysis will illuminate “how local governments and agencies in the region are working with resettled refugees, what practices they have developed, and what lessons they have for others.” She believes having a catalog of best practices will help organizations utilize scarce resources and identify opportunities for collaboration.

With both a foundation of economic data and a detailed map of best practices, the team hopes to provide a report that will help inform effective policymaking at local, state, and federal levels.

Research like this is critical to the U.S. refugee resettlement policy debate, says Tobocman, who hopes that the process will "highlight the tremendous benefits that accrue to local communities from refugee resettlement." While misperceptions abound, “The reality is that communities like Metro Detroit have really thrived, in part, from the economic benefits from refugee resettlement,” Tobocman continues. “That is a major economic, fiscal, and social stabilizing force.”

-- Story by Jacqueline Mullen (MPP '18)