New study reveals economic impact of immigrants and refugees in Kent County

Kent County’s 50,176 immigrants contributed $3.3 billion to the county’s gross domestic product in 2016. Here's how these community members are making a huge impact on the local economy.
The first time Oman Khanal heard the crystalline crunch of snow was 10 years ago after he emigrated from a U.N. refugee camp in Nepal. Khanal and his family were part of a Bhutanese refugee resettlement initiative brought on by the ethnic cleansing that King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan had carried out. 

The exodus from Nepal to Grand Rapids, Mich. was startling, recalls Khanal. In one day he went from living in a bamboo hut to flying into Michigan’s winter wonderland in December 2008.

It was akin to walking into a humongous snow globe.

Oman Khanal

“It was quite adventurous,” says Khanal, now 30. “I’ve never seen all that white cauliflower on the ground. I remember feeling that cold, fresh winter air right on your face. It was like a really refreshing moment.”

10 years later, Khanal’s mental vault of wintertime memories has been tempered. “I’m tired of it,” he says.

Khanal is far from fatigued in what he does for a living, however. As a Refugee Navigator for West Michigan Work!, Khanal helps immigrants search for a job, access job search training and coaching, obtain vocational skills training, and connect with community services.

And for Kent County’s immigrants and refugees, acclimating to a new climate is just for starters. There’s (usually) the challenge of learning a new language, finding a job, learning how to fit in at an unfamiliar school, adapting to a new culture, and even figuring out the mundane things many take for granted, such as how to use a shopping cart, says Khanal.

Khanal chuckles. Before arriving in the U.S., he had a “streets paved with gold” misperception of the country. Now he understands it’s the pursuit of opportunities that makes America great.

“We are a time-based people,” says Khanal. “Work is very important.”

Important, and as a newly released report by the local Gateways for Growth Project has revealed, extraordinary. Kent County is one of 25 communities to receive technical assistance from New American Economy and Welcoming America that compiled the Gateways report, which is intended to develop plans to welcome and integrate immigrants.

According to the report, Kent County’s 50,176 immigrants contributed $3.3 billion to the county’s gross domestic product in 2016.

Yes, $3.3 billion is an impressive amount of money, but it’s how foreign-born workers have flexed that much financial muscle in Kent County that’s just as noteworthy, according to the stakeholders of Gateways for Growth. They include a consortium of area businesses, the city of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Chamber, West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, The Right Place Inc., and Samaritas.

“Our businesses are being asked to expand to a global marketing place that only international talent can provide,” says Tim Mroz, vice president of the Grand Rapids-based economic development nonprofit, The Right Place. “Talent demand far out paces (the county’s) ability to fulfill it. Immigration and foreign-born talent are vital to our region’s long-term economic growth and prosperity.”

The report’s snapshot supports Mroz’s claims.

The amount earned by immigrant households in Kent County in 2016 was nearly $1.3 billion, of which $219.4 million went to federal taxes and $101.5 million to state and local taxes, leaving them with $943.7 million in spending power, according to the Gateways for Growth report.

1,971 immigrant entrepreneurs earned $47.6 million in business income in 2016. The median income for refugees in Kent County in 2016 is $54,045.
In 2012, African American-owned businesses in the county generated $132.6 million in sales and paid 727 employees; Asian American owned businesses generated $492.2 million in sales and paid 2,941 employees; and Hispanic American-owned businesses generated $326.7 million in sales and paid 2,139 employees.

In 2016, immigrants in Kent County contributed $124.6 million to Social Security and $33.3 million to Medicare.

The top five countries of origin for immigrants living in Kent County are Mexico (24.7 percent); Guatemala (8.3 percent); Vietnam (7.8 percent); Bosnia (4.9 percent); and Canada (4.8 percent). 

Shiva Bhattarai does language training on a computer at West Michigan Work! as part of a refugee education and jobs training program.

Jobs that immigrants tend to concentrate in within the county include assemblers and fabricators (4.5 percent); agricultural workers (4.5 percent); production workers (3.9 percent); cooks (3.3 percent); and packers and packagers (3.2 percent). The remaining 80.6 percent are involved in other unspecified occupations.

“Our immigrant brothers and sisters, our hermanos and hermanas, (do not) take more from the system than they give,” says Guillermo Cisneros, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“For those of us whose grandparents have seen Lady Liberty with her heels pressed on the horizon of Ellis Island, to those who made the decision to start a new life, to those who are forced to flee their homes and their dire conditions, these are the people who contribute in numberless ways. Your favorite cashier, your kids’ second grade teacher, the doctor you have visited for 10 years, any one of these could be the 50,176 immigrants in Kent County.”

Education is key to immigrants and refugees’ achievements. The share of Kent County’s population aged 25 and over with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2016 was 27 percent of immigrants (compared to 34.6 percent of U.S. born citizens); the share of immigrants in the county aged 25 and over with an advanced degree (master’s degree, professional degree or doctorate) in 2016 was 11.8 percent (compared with 11.3 percent of U.S. born).

Sylvia Nyamuhungu was two years old when she left Tanzania in 1996, following a decision her parents made to flee their homeland of Rwanda two years earlier due to the mass murders of more than 500,000 Tutsis committed predominately by the majority tribe, the Hutus.

These days, Nyamuhungu is completing her final year at Calvin College where she’s majoring in international development. She has her eye on earning an advanced degree in law or psychology. 

In the meantime, she works as a community connector for a teen girls group for the nonprofit Treetops Collective on S. Division Ave.

Treetop’s multifaceted mission includes coming alongside refugee women by assessing their gifts and skills; helping to build financial sustainability; providing a place for refugee women to speak their native language; interacting with non-refugee women; aiding them with public services; and demonstrating how the Grand Rapids area is a welcoming city.

Then there’s Treetops’ makerspace, a workspace where sewing machines hum during the day and conversations flow on nights and weekends. 

And while Treetops is specifically for refugee women, Nyamuhungu says she does not want to be pigeonholed as a foreigner but as the U.S. citizen she is with a bright future.

“We are so much more than refugees,” says Nyamuhungu. “My parents were teachers before they came here and my dad ended up in a factory here because of the language barrier. Being called a refugee doesn’t define who we are. We are happy to be here, we just want to belong and succeed and we want to work hard.”

Tarah Carnahan, Treetop’s director of sustainability, believes it’s critical to shepherd refugees so they truly do belong, are welcomed, and become “us” instead of “them.”

Tarah Carnaham

“We partner with refugee women to co-create lasting solutions to the barriers they face with scalability in mind,” says Carnahan. “We really want to see a community where refugees and their gifts are celebrated, welcomed, and valued, and move beyond a spirit of hospitality to mutuality through friendship.”

“It’s the area’s foreign-born citizens that will inspire Grand Rapids to plunge boldly into the thick of life," says Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.

“Within the next three years we will likely have 50 percent of our (city of Grand Rapids) employees retire,” says Bliss. “This is a significant opportunity to expand our languages, our cultures, and every single one of our departments so we can be culturally and holistically responsive.”

It’s this eye toward the future that propels Kent County’s refugees and immigrants forward — whether starting a new career, continuing work in their industry, settling their families, or helping others to succeed, these community members continue to make a economic and social impact on all of us.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Photo.