Last week students in Michigan State University’s Master of Public Policy program got to meet with the director of one of Michigan’s newest Executive agencies: The Michigan Office for New Americans. MONA was founded by Governor Rick Snyder in January 2014 to “help propel Michigan’s comeback by attracting and retaining highly skilled immigrants.”
MONA director Bing Goei is a living embodiment of the immigrant success stories his office works to facilitate. Goei was born into Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese community. In 1954, when he was a young boy, his father, a schoolteacher, became concerned about the direction the newly independent country’s leaders were taking. He moved the family to the Netherlands for five years, and then to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the family was sponsored by Fuller Avenue Christian Reformed Church.
Goei worked his way through college, and by the 1980s had built up a large, profitable wholesale floral business. He took 7 years off from his business career to serve as the director of the Christian Reformed Church’s race relations committee. Then he dove back into business, turning around an ailing business in Chicago and then buying Grand Rapids business Eastern Floral and turning it into a major enterprise with 5 locations and over $5 million in revenue. He also started an incubator to help minority entrepreneurs launch businesses in Grand Rapids, and continued to serve on various boards and committees.
Making Michigan Welcoming
In his current post with MONA, Goei works to help immigrants get integrated into the Michigan economy. He also works to dispel myths about immigration and show U.S.-born Michiganders, based on facts, how immigration helps all of us. His central message, he says, is that “immigrants and refugees add to our quality of life.”
“In the four counties around Detroit, the Arab American contributes $7.7 billion to the community and pays $540 million in State taxes! Have you ever heard that statistic?” Goei asked. He said that side of the story needs to be told more loudly in public debate that too often smears immigrants as potential terrorists.
Goei highlighted the need for immigrant workers to fill vacant positions in employment areas from agriculture to medical positions in rural areas to high-tech industries. There are simply not enough U.S.-born workers willing or able to fill these positions in Michigan, Goei said, and leaving them unfilled has negative effects on all Michiganders.
Michigan is constrained by Federal immigration policy—which, for example, limits H-1B visas (temporary work visas for high-tech workers) to 85,000 per year, far below national demand. Goei points to a recent study that found that between 2007 and 2008, computer industry employers in the Detroit metro area “saw an average of more than 5,300 H-1B applications eliminated in the lottery each year”; according to the study’s authors, approving those visas would have also generated up to three times as many jobs for U.S.-born workers, and added millions of dollars to the local economy.
Despite such federal constraints, Goei told MPP students the state has been able to make some progress in improving its ability to attract and integrate immigrants.
For example, Goei highlighted Michigan International Talent Solutions, a free program run by MONA that helps immigrants with professional degrees or technical skills, but who face language and accreditation barriers, to be able to practice their profession in the U.S. The program just started this year, and has already placed four graduates in high-paying professional jobs, he said.
Goei also mentioned the importance of making Michigan a more welcoming place. “Michigan, like many other states in our nation, struggles with the value of diversity and inclusion,” said Goei. “Michigan’s inability to resolve this issue has made our work in developing a welcoming state for new Americans very challenging.”
Civil, Informed Dialogue a Key to Better Policies
Goei said that much of the controversy surrounding immigration policy could be dispelled if legislators were more willing to engage with different points of view and put themselves in other people’s shoes.
“Sometimes it feels like we are not willing to have a frank, civil discussion where we value the opinions of others who don’t agree with us,” Goei said. “Especially as our world is growing smaller, more diverse, more interdependent, we should not be saying ‘it’s my silo, get out.’”
Goei encouraged MPP students to put their analytical skills to work to help drive more informed, objective debate surrounding immigration. “You’re going to have to be the ones who will drive this, because I don’t know if my generation of people are going to be able to change their ways,” he said.
Goei said he would love to have more data highlighting the role of immigrants in Michigan’s economy and social fabric. He said better information on businesses started by immigrants, patents and inventions created by immigrants that benefit everyone, and other such statistics would be very helpful.
“We would also love to know how other states are creating welcoming environment for immigrants and refugees,” he said.
Two students in the MSU MPP program’s 2016 cohort are currently working on their capstone projects in collaboration with Goei and MONA, and Goei said he would be happy to work with more students in the future.