DETROIT (AP) — The area in southeastern Michigan where 2,000 Iraqi refugees are expected to resettle already has 169,000 people out of work. Some fear the influx will push the state’s unemployment rate even higher.
Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, is concerned that the area cannot support many more people without significant federal aid. He likened it to “bringing more passengers to a ship that is already sinking.”
The mayor of Warren, which has a large Arab-American population, recently said the refugees will strain services and drag down an already struggling state economy.
But others, such as University of Michigan economist Donald Grimes, say the entrepreneurial attitude and advanced degrees of many Iraqis might help turn the ship of state around.
“It’s one of the things that could help Michigan recover,” Mr. Grimes said.
Federal officials expect about 7,000 Iraqis to move to the United States by September, with up to half of them eventually going to Michigan. The first few should arrive this month in the Detroit area, home to about 300,000 people who trace their roots to the Middle East.
Michigan’s unemployment rate climbed to 7.2 percent in June — the highest in the nation. The rate reached 7.7 percent in Detroit and the surrounding area last month.
Kurt Metzger, a Detroit-area demographer, said there are reasons to be concerned about high unemployment and cutbacks in retail and service jobs, because many earlier Arab-American immigrants found jobs in small shops and stores or started their own ventures.
But he said local Arabs and Chaldeans — Iraqi Catholics — have a history of owning businesses and helping out newcomers.
“The immigrants are willing to put in long, hard hours at jobs that Americans will not take. … [They] aren’t coming over here to get on the public dole,” said Mr. Metzger, research director of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan.
Still, the state struggled to meet the needs of those who fled Iraq in the 1990s in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, Mr. Hamad said.
“Even with all the conveniences in Michigan, language and culture-wise … I don’t think that the state or social workers were fully ready and well trained,” he said. “The state received additional funds from the federal government, but not enough to address the needs of the influx of refugees.”
Rafat Ita, who came to the United States in 1994 from Iraq and now helps other refugees at the Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, said it’s unfair to deny those who have been traumatized in their homeland a chance to rejoin friends and family here.
“I know we’re struggling with the economy, but we’re going to reach out to the communities and other agencies to help out and serve those refugees,” he said. “We’re not going to back off from doing that.”
Once resettled in Michigan, Mr. Ita said he worked two jobs and was able to buy a house after two years. He followed his brother, who lives in Warren.