Some Want to Steer More Syrian Refugees to the Motor City

While European nations are closing their borders to the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, there is one city that is ready, willing and able to take in thousands of those fleeing their homeland: Detroit.

At least that is the opinion of Haifa Fakhouri, president and CEO of the Arab American and Chaldean Council.

Fakhouri said the AACC is already working on a housing project — a one-square-mile area of Detroit known as NorthTown — that would be perfect for them.

"We've met with several organizations and leaders, but it's moving slowly," Fakhouri told Crains Detroit Business. "We can turn the city around and repopulate that area as more and more Syrian refugees need a place to go. We believe in this revitalization project; it will add to the social mosaic of Detroit.”

Fakhouri told WDET-FM in Detroit the Syrian refugees would find more than just a housing project — assuming the AACC is able to complete the NorthTown development, which has been dragging on for nearly two decades.

If nothing else, she said, the Syrians would be welcomed by close to 3,000 Syrian refugees already living in Metro Detroit, the fourth-largest Syrian refugee community in the U.S.

“We have the community infrastructure. We have the faith-based organizations,” Fakhouri said.

She has been talking to officials in the city of Detroit and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) office, but has yet to receive a firm commitment of support for her proposal.

However, the idea of bringing Syrian refugees into Detroit does seem to fit with Snyder’s avowed goal of making Michigan one of the most immigrant-friendly states in the nation.

“We need to encourage immigration in Michigan. That’s how we made our country great,” Gov. Snyder said.

Snyder has also called for the federal government to designate an additional 50,000 employment-based visas for skilled immigrants and entrepreneurs during the next five years.

He wants the visas to attract “highly-skilled, entrepreneurial, legal immigrants” who commit to living and working in Detroit, “thereby contributing to its economic and population growth.”

Snyder even declared the week of Sept. 13 to be “Welcoming Week” in Michigan, and 10 local governments in the state branded themselves as “Welcoming” municipalities to immigrants.

As for Fakhouri’s proposal of moving thousands of Syrian refugees into a one-square-mile section of Detroit, a spokesman for Gov. Snyder told the Detroit News it is under review.

“Gov. Snyder believes Michigan should be a welcoming state,” Dave Murray said. “We are open to working with the federal government to see if there is a role that Michigan can play with this issue.”

The Detroit News has editorially supported the idea of bringing thousands of Syrian refugees into Detroit.

The paper’s editorial board noted, as did Fakhouri, that the Detroit region is already home to one of the largest Syrian refugee communities in the U.S. and has the public and private support agencies in place “with expertise in dealing with Arab newcomers.”

“In addition, Michigan has an abundance of inexpensive, available housing particularly in Detroit and its other urban centers. Detroit, with up to 80,000 abandoned structures, would benefit from refugees willing to repair and homestead those properties.”

The editorial, “Bring Them Here,” also pointed out many of the Syrians could have the skills needed to fill up to 100,000 jobs that are open because of a lack of skilled workers in the Detroit area.

However, Rep. Candace Miller (R-Mich.), whose district covers a healthy portion of suburban Detroit, is worried about the threat of terrorism.

“The U.S. has a long history of assisting refugees seeking asylum from across the globe – one that we can be proud of. However, as the migrant crisis across Europe created by fleeing Syrians continues to unfold, it is imperative that the U.S. not lose sight of the significant threat posed by extremist fighters recruited to the region by ISIS and similar-minded terrorist organizations,” Miller said in a statement.

“Syria is home to the largest convergence of Islamist terrorists, many of whom are committed to attacking the U.S. and its allies,” Miller added.

Fakhouri — who has said Obama’s goal of allowing 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. is far too small — agreed with Miller that security should be a concern and all the refugees “should be screened.”

But as far as she is concerned, that is the federal government’s responsibility.

“They should screen them,” Fakhouri said. “But our issue is to deal with the humanitarian aspect of the refugees coming to America.”

David D. Laitin, a professor of political science and co-director of the Immigration and Integration Policy Lab at Stanford University, and Marc Jahr, a former president of the New York City Housing Development Corporation, co-authored an op-ed column in the New York Times in May supporting the idea of Detroit as a new home for many of the Syrian refugees.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the Detroit area is a powder keg of anti-immigrant sentiment. Quite the contrary: From its original Native Americans to the Great Migration of Southern blacks to the infusion of Hispanic and Arab immigrants, Detroit has been a melting pot of religions, ethnicities and cultures.”

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