Detroit's New Social Fabric

Metro area still attracts immigrants searching for a brighter future.


Illustrations by Peter Crawley /// Photographs by Roy Ritchie

(page 1 of 2)

////  WE ALL KNOW THE STORY OF MICHIGAN'S POPULATION EXODUS OVER THE PAST DECADE: Workers and families flee a devastated economy and crushed housing market, leaving homes abandoned in their wake — and leaving cities with shrinking school populations and tax bases.

But there’s another, more hopeful, story parallel to the tale of loss: People from around the globe are coming to Michigan in search of a brighter future.

Even as state residents were seeking opportunity elsewhere, a steady stream of immigrants arrived in metro Detroit. Increasingly, these new arrivals are viewed as vital to our region’s efforts to revitalize — so long as we can keep them here.

“We tend to think of ourselves as black and white [in metro Detroit]; even within the white population we don’t talk about diversity because we keep talking race,” says Kurt Metzger, director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit. “I don’t think people recognize the tremendous number of countries and the diversity of this region. One thing this region desperately needs is educated young people, and that’s more so a characteristic of immigrant groups.

“People are actually choosing this place,” he adds. “Let’s understand why they have and make sure that we’re not losing them.”


Metro Detroit’s international roots run deep. At the beginning of the 20th century, the city had about a quarter of a million residents, more than a third of whom were foreign born. In the coming decades, the auto industry attracted hundreds of thousands of transplants from the U.S. South and around the globe.

Today the region’s immigrant rate is 8 percent, lower than the national average of 13 percent. Still, Macomb, Oakland, Wayne, and Washtenaw counties have 397,000 immigrants between them. Furthermore, most residents have a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent who arrived from abroad.

So who are our foreign born? Here are some key figures, according to a 2014 report by the nonprofit Global Detroit, which drew on the U.S. Census and American Community Survey.

  • ABOUT HALF of metro Detroit’s immigrants are from Asia, but the population is extremely diverse: The top 10 countries of origin (see graph on next page) make up just 60 percent of total immigrants. 
  • NEARLY 40 PERCENT of metro Detroit’s foreign born hold an undergraduate degree or higher (about twice the rate of the native-born population).
  • TWO-THIRDS own their own home.
  • A THIRD make more than $75,000 annually, compared with one-quarter of the native population.
  • MORE THAN 70 PERCENT of immigrants live in 
a married-couple household. They are half as likely as the native born to be divorced. 
  • JUST OVER HALF have become naturalized citizens; that figure jumps to 75 percent among those who arrived prior to 1990.


The Global Detroit report concludes: “The fact that more than 75 percent of immigrants who arrived prior to 1990 had attained citizenship … demonstrates a very strong desire for those who take up residency in the United States to become permanent, tax-paying citizens with full legal and voting rights.”

If you want to get a sense of just how diverse 
our region really is, spend a day on Ford Road near Schaefer Road in Dearborn. Or walk around Hamtramck, explore Ryan Road in Sterling Heights, or visit Southwest Detroit.

The influx of immigrants to metro Detroit invariably changes the cultural fabric of its communities. A traditionally working-class-white community like Warren now has a mosque. It’s possible to walk into restaurants and shops and encounter few fellow patrons who speak English as a first language, or at all. Schools must answer to the demands of parents, especially those from Asian countries, with very high expectations for their children’s education.

A handful of communities, forming something of an immigration belt across the region, have received the largest numbers of new arrivals: Sterling Heights, Troy, Warren, Farmington, Novi, Canton, and Ann Arbor.


In Sterling Heights, city officials began to focus on ways to welcome immigrants as early as 1990. The city council formed the Ethnic Community Committee, with the purpose of addressing various ethnic population’s issues and concerns.

The committee hosts yearly cultural exchanges and has produced a series of brochures, titled “Getting to Know Your Neighbors,” which spotlight different ethnicities.

Then, about a decade ago, the city started an immigrant outreach program following a championship soccer match that was won by an Iraqi team. “There was a huge display of pride and celebration down Ryan Road, and it caught all of us at the city frankly off guard,” says Steven Guitar, the city’s community relations director. “We didn’t know why they were doing that. We realized we needed to form a better partnership with that community, and with others.”

The city began reaching out to its schools, churches, fire and police departments, and civic organizations to help them build connections.

Those efforts were prescient, because the city has been among the most rapidly changing communities in metro Detroit. Between 2000 and 2010, Sterling Heights’ Asian population jumped 43 percent (that includes a large number of refugees from Iraq and Syria. For demographic/statistical purposes, the Middle East is considered part of Asia). Its black population quadrupled, and its Hispanic population grew by 52 percent.

“The more residents know about one another, the less fear there is, and we find we have much more in common than we have differences,” Guitar says. “I think immigration enriches our culture and our quality of life. I won’t say it’s not without its challenges, but the benefits far outweigh the challenges.”



Our region’s changing demographics aren’t due solely to immigration. Native residents have been doing a fair bit of moving around within the region, too. Younger, educated whites are trickling into Detroit, reversing a decades-long trend of a dwindling white population in the city.

“One of the biggest changes ... was this demographic shift out of Detroit, and that was really led by African-Americans more than anyone else,” Metzger says. “It’s really changed the dynamics in a lot of areas, especially in lower-income communities, mostly along Macomb County’s southern tier but also in Hazel Park and Madison Heights to some extent.”

Part of the shift is that established African-American communities in cities like Southfield and Eastpointe absorbed Detroiters who were able to afford housing in those communities for the first time during the economic downturn.

Meanwhile, white transplants to the city have stirred up resentment among some longtime residents, who see business funding and media attention lapped up by the new arrivals at the perceived expense of those who have long been committed to Detroit.

Such conflict is perhaps an inevitable growing pain in a region experiencing rapid demographic change. In metro Detroit, those challenges are exacerbated by the longtime tendency toward geographical division. But overcoming those divisions offers opportunities for new arrivals 
and natives alike — and for a region that still has much economic and social progress to make.

“We still seem to be so divided in so many different ways, geographically or by group,” Metzger says. “How do we bring all those strengths to the table instead of this constant issue of dividing ourselves? We have pretty good representation of all the major and growing economies 
in the world, and we should be building those bridges. Let’s work with who we already have and become more attractive.”


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