GRAND RAPIDS — The economic power of Grand Rapids’ immigrant community grew by more than $100 million in just one year.
That’s according to the results of a study released this month by New American Economy, a New York-based bipartisan research and advocacy group.
The estimated $2 billion in household income that immigrants earned in 2017 was the direct result of their increasing numbers within the local workforce, especially in sectors such as manufacturing.
“This increase is due to the growth of the immigrant population as well as their economic mobility,” said Andrew Lim, director of quantitative research at New American Economy. “They are better able to increase their earning potential and are becoming more like any other Michigander.
“Immigrants are fairly misunderstood, so this data is really for people to learn more about their neighbors and how important they are to the overall community.”
Representatives with New American Economy said the study coincided with a task force that’s bringing together leaders across various sectors to develop a strategic plan to ensure the city welcomes and harnesses the potential of all residents. The effort is led by Samaritas, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Grand Rapids was one of 14 communities selected nationally for the 2019 Gateway to Growth award to receive technical assistance from New American Economy and Welcoming America, an advocacy group for inclusive communities.
“Every year, we do a call for proposals from different communities that are interested in learning more about issues concerning their immigrant communities and policies and best practices that they can implement to create a more welcoming atmosphere,” Lim said.
Other award recipients included Charlotte, N.C.; Lowell, Mass.; and Bowling Green, Ohio.
Lim said one of the more interesting narratives is that more immigrants are settling in cities not located on the coasts.
“We see a lot of growth in communities like Grand Rapids or Nashville, Charlotte, Austin, Tulsa. That is a huge trend in that it’s not just big cities on the coast that are attracting newcomers,” Lim said. “Cities that have struggled with population declines are being revitalized and stemming their population decline.
“It’s a question of quality of life and affordability. Big urban areas would actually shrink dramatically if it wasn’t for new immigrants coming from abroad. Immigrants are among the demographics that are attracted to smaller areas where there are ample job opportunities, but the cost of living is much lower.”
Javier Olvera, one of the owners of Supermercado Mexico Inc. with locations in Grand Rapids and Wyoming, said he was 16 years old in 1990 when he and his family moved to Grand Rapids from Guadalajara, Mexico. Although they had family in West Michigan and California, his parents chose to settle in Grand Rapids because they wanted to be in a city that was more family-oriented and would give them more opportunities to be successful, Olvera said.
After graduating from Ferris State University with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, Olvera went to work for Steelcase for nine years. He left because he had an opportunity to start a new business that coincided with changes he was seeing in the economy.
“The economy was shifting and I was working at Steelcase and I noticed that people were not buying furniture,” he said. “I needed to do something different that was related to the Hispanic community and food. I knew everybody had to eat three times a day.”
The opportunities that began with his parents grew throughout the years for the city’s immigrant population and paved the way for Olvera, his brother Pablo, and their spouses to purchase a store called La Vencedora, which they renamed La Tapatia, on Clyde Park Avenue. In 2010, the foursome, who are all owners of the supermarkets, purchased the Supermercado Mexico store on Chicago Drive in Wyoming. One year later, they opened another Supermercado Mexico on Division Avenue and 34th Street.
Fighting ‘brain waste’
Lim said the experiences of Olvera and other members of the city’s immigrant community run counter to the stereotypical narratives about new immigrants.
“Especially in Grand Rapids, we see that contrary to a lot of the rhetoric, immigrants have relatively high levels of educational attainment and work in high-level professions,” Lim said. “In Grand Rapids, immigrants are more likely to have advanced degrees. If you look at the spectrum of education, there’s a lot on the higher end and also on the lower end.”
Nationally, 2 million immigrants have a college degree but are working in low-skill, low-wage jobs, Lim said, citing a study conducted by New American Economy. In Michigan, the study found 144,000 high-skilled immigrants had at least a bachelor’s degree, and about 30,000 of them were working in low-skilled jobs or underemployed.
Lim remains concerned about the lack of an established network for immigrants who are new to a city or the country.
“If you don’t speak English as well, you might have trouble communicating or using your full skill set,” Lim said. “You may have had extensive training or work in your own country, but you’re unable to do these jobs in the United States. There are people who were doctors or engineers in their home countries who are now driving a taxi.”
Lim refers to this as “brain waste” or underemployment.
‘Day and night’
Mario Rodriguez-Garcia, part of a family-owned business called Soldadera Coffee LLC, said the city’s immigrant community has access to resources and support, which makes it possible for companies like his to become established and grow. Rodriguez-Garcia and his family moved to Grand Rapids from Mexico City when he was eight years old.
“For me, being here since 2000 and growing up in the Hispanic community, it’s like day and night,” Rodriguez-Garcia said. “Before, our community was in more of a secluded area where the downtown community wasn’t reaching out as much to the Hispanic community. That’s changed.”
He credits hard work from a variety of groups in Grand Rapids for driving the shift.
“Growing up in Grand Rapids and being around the Hispanic community, I’ve always seen the community hustling, but that never applied to outside of the community where everybody can see you more,” Rodriguez-Garcia said.
Resources such as the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Start Garden LLC are working to increase diversity and help minorities, he added.
Rodriguez-Garcia is counting on that support as he and his family make plans to relocate their cold-brew coffee business from an incubator space in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market to its own location.
Lim said Olvera and Rodriguez-Garcia are examples of the kinds of success he’s seeing throughout the United States.
“In almost every geographic area, immigrants are starting their own businesses,” Lim said. “One of the reasons that they’re more likely to do that is that they have a much smaller social network and less capital. Difficulties in finding jobs that match their skill set force them to think about setting out on their own. We’re seeing that in Grand Rapids and the state of Michigan and the country in general.”
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