Immigration an economic lifeline

April 10th, 2017

The Journal Gazette

Any discussion of immigration inevitably frames the issue as a problem, or at least a challenge.  But for the Midwest's metro areas, including Fort Wayne, a new analysis paints it as a lifeline. If residents of northeast Indiana want to see the region grow and prosper, they will support efforts to protect and strengthen that lifeline.

“The native-born cohort aged 35-44 years – the prime working-age population – has dropped in all 46 Midwest areas since the year 2000,” according to the report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “At the same time, the number of immigrants in this age category rose, in some instances by more than 100 percent. The foreign-born now play a critical role in offsetting regional workforce gaps created by an aging native-born population.”

The figures hold true for northeast Indiana, which lost almost 10,000 native-born residents in that 35-44 age group between 2000 and 2015, or nearly one in five. By contrast, the population of foreign-born residents of that age group increased 50 percent.

Rob Paral, the researcher who conducted the immigration analysis, said in an interview that working-age residents are key to economic health because they are the primary consumers and producers. But as the population ages and many residents of working age relocate to southern or western states, metro areas are relying on immigrants to keep their populations up and their economies moving. Midwest metro populations rose only 7 percent from 2000 to 2015, compared with 14 percent growth for the nation overall.

Fort Wayne, which grew at a rate of 12 percent, is in a good position, he noted.

“Immigrants are a quarter of your new growth, but you are a growing area,” he said. “That's good – you aren't in a crisis.”

Jaydip Desai is among the foreign-born residents who helped make northeast Indiana grow. A native of Gujarat, India, he earned his undergraduate degree there and came to the U.S. in 2010 to study in New Jersey. After earning master's and doctoral degrees in biomedical engineering, he joined the faculty at Indiana Tech in 2014, where he now trains students to design medical and prosthetic devices. His work includes a new collaboration with the Parkview Mirro Research Center on brain-machine technology for individuals with quadriplegia.

Desai now lives in Fort Wayne with his wife and younger brother. He said he has found it to be a welcoming community, noting the support senior colleagues at Indiana Tech extended, but Desai admitted he has some concerns about the anti-immigrant views held by some in the Midwest and elsewhere. Last month, an Indian immigrant and engineer in Olathe, Kansas, was shot to death while having a beer with a friend. The suspect allegedly told Srinivas Kuchibhotla to “get out of my country” before shooting both men and another who intervened.

“I believe that people in this region and country do understand how difficult it is for the young international professionals to work away from their home country because we all have a same goal to be a part of this amazing country, which truly is a land of opportunity,” Desai said in an email.

John Freiburger is among the employers extending opportunity to new residents. President and owner of Precision Die Technologies, his company began working with Catholic Charities about 20 years ago to hire Bosnian refugees resettling in Fort Wayne. Some of his original hires are still on the job and he has since hired workers from Myanmar, plus Central American and African nations. He's looking to hire more.

“Our experience is that they are great employees,” Freiburger said, noting that the greatest challenge is the language barrier. He originally hired a worker who spoke both Bosnian and English to work as an interpreter, and later had an instructor lead English classes at his Speedway Drive plant. Because many of the foreign-born employees are Muslim, Freiburger each year shuts down the factory on Eid al-Fitr, the feast day marking the end of Ramadan, pushing the production day to the following Saturday. He also works with the employees to accommodate month-long travel to visit family in Bosnia.

“Their culture has some impact,” he said. “As an employer, you need to be aware of it and adjust.”

Freiburger said he's found his employees have high expectations for their own children, and he has encouraged parents to take time to support their school activities.

“Is there an advantage to immigration? Absolutely,” he said. “It needs to be done in a proper way. We only hire documented immigrants.”

The 28-year-old company makes dies, supplying Fort Wayne Metals, Rea Magnet Wire, Superior Essex and more.

John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, said he knows the region must attract immigrants if it hopes to reach its goal of 1 million residents. 

“Particularly in the Midwest, it is foreign-born residents who are saving our bacon,” Sampson said. “We know we are losing on domestic migration. Our kids go off to school, get internships and jobs and don't return. Legal immigration is the answer.”

Other economic development leaders recognize the potential, Sampson said. At the last Regional Opportunities Council meeting, there were multiple participants eager to work on a committee focused on international immigration.

“We have to be different than other communities,” he said. “Foreign-born residents can go anywhere – why would they choose to come to northeast Indiana? As we begin this march to 1 million, that's the question we need to be asking ourselves.”

Sampson said he is confident the region can compete.

“What we want to focus on is the stuff we can control,” he said, noting the state-level controversy surrounding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “What was written was mostly from outside Indiana. We should be the ones telling our story. ... No place has been as welcoming as northeast Indiana.”

Paral, the Chicago analyst, noted that emotions around immigration are strong, but he points out that policies that recognize foreign-born residents as a lifeline for the Midwest are especially important now, as travel bans and border walls dominate the national conversation on immigration. Northeast Indiana leaders can serve the region best by reminding residents of the value foreign-born residents bring and by rejecting the divisive policies of the anti-immigration crowd.