David D. Laitin, a professor of political science and co-director of the Immigration and Integration Policy Lab at Stanford University, and Marc Jahr, former president of the New York City Housing Development Corporation, have an op-ed in the New York Times with an intriguing plan to repopulate the city of Detroit, which has lost more than a million residents from its peak. The idea: Bring in a million or so refugees from the Syrian civil war.
Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, a Republican, has already laid the groundwork. In January 2014 he called for an infusion of 50,000 immigrants as part of a program to revitalize Detroit, and signed an executive order creating the Michigan Office for New Americans.
Syrian refugees would be an ideal community to realize this goal, as Arab-Americans are already a vibrant and successful presence in the Detroit metropolitan area. A 2003 survey by the University of Michigan of 1,016 members of this community (58 percent of whom were Christian, and 42 percent Muslim) found that 19 percent were entrepreneurs and that the median household income was $50,000 to $75,000 per year.
What confidence can we have that traumatized war refugees can be transformed into budding American entrepreneurs? We cannot know for sure. But recent evidence of recaptured children from the clutches of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and victims of violent crime across five continents reveals that they become more active citizens than similar compatriots who have not suffered from these traumatic events. In the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, Syrians, despite psychological scars and limited resources, have set up 3,500 shops, stores and other businesses.
Refugees resettled from a single war zone have helped revitalize several American communities, notably Hmong in previously neglected neighborhoods in Minneapolis, Bosnians in Utica, N.Y., and Somalis in Lewiston, Me.Resettling Syrians in Detroit would require commitment and cooperation across different branches and levels of our government, but it is eminently feasible. President Obama and Congress would have to agree to lift this year’s refugee ceiling by 50,000. The State Department, which handles overseas processing of refugees, would need to open offices at the camps in Jordan and Turkey, determine eligibility and administer a lottery for resettlement. Homeland Security, which controls the borders, would have to carry out accelerated security checks, as has been done in the past for Vietnamese and for Iranian religious minorities. Health and Human Services would need an expansion in the $1.5 billion it budgets for refugee resettlement.
I think that’s a great idea. It won’t happen, of course, but it’s a great idea. The Republicans, who have total control of the state government here in Michigan, would do everything they could to stop it out of pure bigotry. All the right wing sees when they look at Syrian refugees are Muslim terrorists, despite the fact that these people are the victims of ISIS and the equally terroristic Assad regime. They simply cannot conceive of a Muslim who is not a terrorist.
But the fact is that this is a win/win on every front. Detroit gets an influx of people to boost their tax base and open a flood of new businesses. The massive humanitarian crisis in Lebanon, Turkey and Syria is significantly improved. Our public standing in the Middle East is improved. Great idea that won’t ever happen.