‘Our economy wouldn’t work without them.’ Report shows how immigrants contribute to Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — A new report released Monday by the Grand Rapids Chamber and the American Immigration Council gives a glimpse at the role foreign-born residents play in Kent County’s economy.

The report shows there were 57,400 immigrants living in Kent County in 2019, up 5.2% from five years earlier. They contributed $5 billion that same year to the county’s gross domestic product, the total output of goods and services. That represents 9% of the county’s total GDP.

Rick Baker, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Chamber, said the report’s findings show immigrants “have a very positive impact on our region.”

“It’s going to continue to be important to embrace, to welcome, engage the new Americans into our economy for us to be successful as a community,” he said, following a presentation on the report at the chamber’s headquarters in downtown Grand Rapids.

The report comes amid a push by the chamber to attract and retain immigrants.

Michigan’s population is stagnant and growing older, according to a May report by the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan. Business leaders see immigration as one way to expand the state’s population and provide a bigger pool of workers to fill open positions.

“Job demand is growing, and the working population is shrinking,” Nate Koetje, CEO of Feyen Zylstra, a Walker-based electrical services company, said during the event. “We know the economic vibrancy of our community, of our businesses depends on our ability to attract people, to fill jobs.”

One solution, he said, is “our ability to create a community that can attract and retain new Americans.”

Related: Immigration reform needed to fill labor shortage, Grand Rapids Chamber says

The report shows the industries in Kent County that employ the most immigrants are agriculture, construction, transportation and warehousing, and manufacturing. The top five countries of origin for immigrants in Kent County who have become U.S. citizens are Vietnam (12.9%), Mexico (11.9%), Bosnia (9%), China (5.5%), and India (5.4%).

About 40% of immigrants in Kent County have become U.S. citizens, the report said. An estimated 43% of the immigrants are not eligible to become U.S. citizens, while the remaining 17% are “likely” eligible for citizenship but have not taken steps to become citizens.

While the report shows the benefits immigrants play in the region, it also shows the challenges the population faces.

As a whole, the immigrant population had less formal education than U.S. citizens, the report shows. For example, 37% of U.S.-born residents in Kent County have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The number falls to 25% for immigrants.

Immigrants were also 28% less likely to be an entrepreneur than their U.S. counterparts, according to the report.

“That actually runs opposite to national trends and to trends that we see in other communities,” said Asma Easa, manager of state and local initiatives at the American Immigration Council. “So, we know that that’s an area of growth the community wants to weigh-in on.”

The chamber wants to focus on how to improve the supports and services and information to the immigrant community so they can start businesses and start hiring Kent County residents, Easa said. Eight percent of the business owners in Kent County are immigrants, the report said.

Looking forward, business owners say they’re hopeful the report demonstrates the important role immigrants play in Kent County.

“We know that migrant workers and immigrants are key to industries such as agriculture, hospitality, mass market production, and more,” said Eloy Garza, CEO of Garza & Sons, a labor contracting firm based in Wyoming. “With this report, there is no doubt that our economy wouldn’t work without them. This data helps to make the case to a broader audience as we work to support a growing West Michigan.”

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