Ford+SPPG Conference: Immigration in a Populist Era

Kelly Rahardja

The United States is undergoing a transformation of its immigration policy that could prevent thousands of incoming refugees from gaining entry into the country. As legislative action continues to target refugees at the federal level, the need for state refugee integration and resettlement programs becomes increasingly salient.

Ford and SPPG Student Delegates                                                                                               Photo credit: The Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy

It was relevant then that this year’s Ford+SPPG conference—the annual case competition organized by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy (Ford) and the School of Public Policy and Governance (SPPG)—focused on providing state-centered solutions to facilitate the economic empowerment and social integration of refugees in Michigan. Held in Ann Arbor, the two-day conference highlighted the importance of human rights in immigration policy, while providing a unique backdrop to the challenges facing refugees in America.

Immigration in Michigan

Unlike the majority of American states, Michigan has prioritized welcoming immigrants and refugees, with the hope of utilizing skilled immigrants to help grow Michigan’s economy. This is reflected by current Governor Rick Snyder’s efforts to sponsor bills with pro-immigrant language and launch programs aimed at leveraging the talents of immigrants and refugees.

Steve Tobocman of Global Detroit further emphasized the importance of social integration policies on changing public perception of refugees during the conference’s keynote panel:

“We cannot win the war on terror by demonizing an entire religion. What changes human perspectives is through human interaction – by telling stories and building bridges with one another.”

This approach is understandable given Michigan’s unique demographic makeup. As one of the top five states in terms of the total number of refugees accepted, Michigan is home to over 600,000 foreign born residents, which amounts to more than six per cent of the state’s population. The number of people in Michigan who identified as having Arabic-speaking ancestry on U.S. census surveys also grew by more than 47 per cent between 2000 and 2013.

However, refugees continue to face a myriad of economic and social challenges upon arriving in the US. Initial struggles of refugees include language barriers, underemployment, discrimination, unfamiliarity with or inadequacy of transportation, and limited understanding of labour market processes and requirements. For instance, research reveals that level of English proficiency is still one of the main reasons preventing highly-skilled immigrants from receiving offers of employment.

It was in this context that eight teams comprised of both Ford and SPPG students aimed to provide solutions that would target these key issues.

Students listen to keynote panelists

Case Competition

Following the keynote panel discussing the recent changes in US immigration policy and refugee resettlement, students broke off into teams of five to form recommended strategies that would address the underlying challenges facing refugee success in Michigan.

Students listen to keynote panelists

With only four hours to prepare their presentations, the results were an impressive array of policy solutions that targeted specific aspects of language acquisition, employment, educational attainment, and health of refugees. Although all teams were applauded for their presentation and teamwork skills, the creativity of policy solutions became the deciding factor for determining the best recommended strategy.

Focusing on revitalizing employment opportunities, the winning team comprised of Samantha Chu and Michelle Rubin from Ford, and Blake Lee-Whiting, Priscilla Mak and Ali Nasser Virji from SPPG, utilized a three-pronged approach that would be spearheaded and coordinated by the Michigan Office for New Americans (MONA).

The winning team from left to right: Ali Nasser Virji, Samantha Chu, Priscilla Mak, Michelle Rubin, Blake Lee-Whiting

Their strategy began by creating pathways for refugees to start small businesses by providing financing opportunities through existing refugee development organizations. This would be complemented by sponsored mentorship programs that would connect high-skilled underemployed refugees to jobs in high growth sectors through specialized internship programs. The final part of their strategy concentrated on helping refugees build on their skills by connecting them to community organizations, consequently supporting the local economy.

“We definitely agreed that it was a broader reaching policy solution that would be more likely to have a positive impact on refugees with varying levels of skills and education. We also thought it would be great to leverage existing programs under the MONA office and enhance their coordination to streamline program delivery,” explains first year SPPG student Priscilla Mak. “Of course, it would require more data to work, but each of these programs could plausibly develop into a full-fledged program.”

Keynote Panelists

Anna Kanduth, one of the co-chairs of the conference, believes the competition ended on a high note with both sides discovering new methods for improving refugee outcomes.

“When we chose this theme back in November, we had no idea just how relevant the topic of immigration integration and mobility in a populist era would be,” she notes.

“While the American context made it a challenging case to write, and a difficult case for delegates to tackle, I think students from both the Ford School and SPPG left this weekend feeling hopeful that the next generation of policy leaders are bright, passionate, and caring.”

Kelly Rahardja is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, and a Junior Fellow at Massey College. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts with a Specialization in International Relations and American Studies from the University of Toronto. She has several years of experience editing publications, and was previously a Program Editor at the NATO Association of Canada. An avid traveler, her research interests include national security, intergovernmental relations, and the intricacies of policy implementation.