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Wah Wah Shell has chosen Pittsburg for a new $2 billion plant to process natural gas. The Wall Street Journal says the plant is expected to create thousands of jobs. Ohio leaders were hoping the plant would be built in their state.

Whoopsie Two weeks ago, a state press release in Indiana promoted the MBC Group as an example how the state’s new Right to Work law is creating jobs. One problem: the president of the MBC Group says Right to Work played no role in his company’s decision to expand.

Big money The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports on the “staggering” amount of money being spent on the Scott Walker recall campaign. The amount is more than double the amount previously spent on any statewide campaign in Wisconsin.

Calling all angels The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that angel investing in Wisconsin reached over $61 million last year.

Immigrant entrepreneurs Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a series of workshops to help immigrants launch small businesses.

Primed for the primary Partner station WBEZ reports that Newt Gingrich was in Illinois yesterday. Other candidates will be in the state today, as the Illinois primary race gets going.

Damage done It’s only property A tornado ripped through the small Southeast Michigan village of Dexter yesterday. No one was hurt.

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Dayton seeks immigrant influx. Among industrial Midwest cities seeking to stop a population hemorrhage, Dayton, Ohio hardly stands alone in its attempts to attract highly educated immigrants. What’s unusual in Dayton is that the city wants the rest of the immigrants too.  City Manager Tim Riordan tells our partner station WBEZ that welcome all immigrants regardless of skill or wealth will create “a vibrancy” in the city. Dayton’s population sank 14.8 percent over the past decade to 141,527 in the 2010 U.S. Census, a steep decline from its all-time high of 262,000 in the 1960s. Currently, foreign-born residents account for 3 percent of the city’s residents. But Riordan says newcomers are already building foundations in the western Ohio city.

2. Chrysler sales skyrocket. Driven by rising consumer confidence, Chrysler reported today that sales rose 45 percent in November year over year. Brand sales rose 92 percent thanks to increased demand for the 200 and 300 sedans, and Jeep sales increased 50 percent from November 2010. General Motors and Ford are both expected to release monthly sales numbers later today. “Consumer confidence is really what’s going to underpin us as we go into 2012, so we’re really pleased to see that showing up,” GM’s Don Johnson tells our partner Michigan Radio. Industry sales appear to be on pace for 13 million units in 2011.

3. Ohio courts Sears. Two days after Illinois lawmakers jilted Sears Holdings Corp. in its attempt to win tax incentives worth $100 million from the state, the Chicago-based company has a new suitor. Ohio has offered Sears incentives worth four times that amount to relocate its headquarters and 6,200 jobs to the Buckeye State. Texas is another state aggressively courting the company, according to the office of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. His counterpart, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, declined to confirm or deny an offer to Sears, joking with The Columbus Dispatch that, “we are somewhere between $0 and $400 million.”

Last week, officials in Dayton, Ohio gave unanimous approval to a plan to adopt an “immigrant friendly” economic approach.

They hope the campaign brings a two-fold benefit to the city and its dwindling population, which at approximately 142,000 residents, is at its lowest number in nearly a century. One, the officials hope immigrants can boost that sagging number. Two, they believe immigrants will bring economic benefits.

They’re not the only ones in the Midwest who believe immigrants can become economic drivers.

In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has encouraged highly educated immigrants to settle in the state. It’s an unusual position for an elected official in a state that’s lost more than 300,000 residents in the past decade and still holds a stubborn 11.2 percent unemployment rate.

“We’ve been in a recession for a decade,” Snyder tells Dan Rather Reports. “How do we really reinvent ourselves? One of the keys to how we build ourselves is immigration.”

Steven Tobocman, a former Democratic state lawmaker who recently authored Global Detroit, a report that formed the base of Snyder’s immigration policy, says that 32.8 percent of Michigan’s high-tech firms formed over the past 10 years have been founded by immigrants. Only six percent of Michigan residents are foreign born.

A study from the Small Business Administration notes that immigrants are three times more likely than native residents to start businesses and six times more likely to start high-tech businesses.

That’s not unnoticed in Dayton, where officials say they have already seen those sorts of benefits. Now they want to promote the city as immigrant friendly and envision the creation of an international marketplace.

“One reason the American dream is still alive is that people keep coming to us who believe in it,” University of Dayton professor Linda Majka tells the Dayton Daily News. “Dayton has the opportunity to get this right.”

Part of the benefits for immigrants in Dayton would include the creation of a municipal identification card for city residents who do not have another form of ID. Another portion of the campaign is a recommendation that police check immigration status only for suspects of serious crimes.

The initiatives in Detroit and Dayton run against the national grain, where many states are mulling proposals to toughen immigration laws – legal or otherwise — in some cases because local workers are fearful they’ll compete with immigrants for scarce jobs.

In Alabama, an immigration law considered by many as the toughest in the nation, recently went into effect. Business owners say significant portions of their workforces have fled the state. The exodus includes many who were legally documented workers.

“We believe that all our employees are legal, but they have told us, ‘We’re not going to stay in a place we’re not welcome,’” said Norm Moore, chief executive of Woerner Development Inc., which is part of the state’s $2.9 billion agriculture industry.

“They came here for the same reasons that most of our ancestors came here – for better opportunity,” Moore told the Mobile Press-Register. “We’ve always accepted people who want to better their lives, and now we’re doing something different.”

Proponents of the Alabama law believe it will add 1,100 jobs in the state by next spring.

Over the past decade, the Great Recession has perhaps punched Michigan workers the hardest.

Michigan was the only state in the country to lose population in that time span. More than 300,000 residents fled the state. Its peak unemployment rate of 14.1 percent ranks as one of the highest in the U.S. More than 1 in 5 residents in Detroit, its largest city, remain in search of work.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder

So it’s inexplicable to many in Michigan that one of the lynchpins in Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to put people back to work is encouraging an influx of immigrants. Snyder touted those plans in an exclusive Dan Rather Reports segment that aired earlier this week.

“I think it’s important for our future,” Snyder told Rather. “We’ve been in a recession for a decade. How do we really reinvent ourselves? One of the keys to how we build ourselves is immigration.”

It’s been a relevant issue in the state’s past. One century ago, immigrants comprised 33 percent of Detroit’s population during its nascent boom years. For a more contemporary example, Snyder gazes beyond Michigan’s borders toward Silicon Valley, and notes 47 percent of its residents are foreign born.

“I am focused on finding more and better jobs for Michiganders,” he tells Rather. “Encouraging legal immigration for advanced-degree people is consistent with that. They’re job creators.”

A study from the Small Business Administration shows immigrants in Michigan are three times as likely as native-born residents to start businesses, and six times as likely to start high-tech businesses. Snyder, a Republican, would like to tap that entrepreneurial spirit.

Steven Tobocman, author of Global Detroit, a recent report that formed the foundation of  Snyder’s immigration policy, writes that 32.8 percent of the state’s high-tech firms over the past 10 years have been founded by immigrants, in a state where 6 percent overall are foreign born.

He’s an unlikely ally for Snyder. Tobocman served three terms in the Michigan House of Representatives, a Democrat representing Detroit’s southwest side.

“Nothing is more powerful for remaking Detroit as a center of innovation, entrepreneurship and population growth than embracing and increasing immigrant populations and the entrepreneurial culture and global connections that they bring and deliver,” he writes.

Many of the immigrants Snyder and Tobocman seek are already within the state’s borders. Approximately 23,000 foreign-born students currently attend the state’s colleges and universities, and the state spends “millions” educating them, according to Dan Rather Reports.

Visa restrictions and more lucrative opportunities elsewhere lure them away after graduation.

“It’s a great opportunity to keep our kids in a wonderful position,” Snyder said. “We already educate so many wonderful students from outside the country. Is there a way to help keep them here? … The other piece I want to do is talk to the communities that we have here that are already ethnic communities, and do they have outreach back in their countries to bring and attract people to Michigan. I think we can all win.”

A new experiment I’m trying here – sharing online some interesting background or side stories that I find in the course of reporting a bigger story, like the one I just did about Latinos across the Midwest. One of my biggest frustrations as a public radio reporter is how much research we do that doesn’t end up on air. Here, in a new section I’m calling Niala’s Notebook, I’ll highlight some interesting smaller stories (or as we say in the biz, angles) that don’t end up in larger stories.

Migration waves of ethnic groups to the United States have traditionally happened over about a hundred year period, I was told by a couple of folks as I researched this story. It begs the question: how does this wave of Latino immigrants differ from previous ones, like the Irish to the United States during the 18th to mid-19th centuries?

Allert Brown-Gort in his office (Niala Boodhoo


I had some interesting discussions about this with Allert Brown-Gort, the associated director at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. I’m sure this has been the topic of many graduate studies, in our discussion there are two interesting modern differences about current immigrants that I found especially interesting:

-Given the increasingly global nature of the world, and the mobility and improved communications, immigrants don’t lose as many ties to their home countries – how can you when a trip home is as simple as a plane ride or a Skype call? That results in an increased duality in the way immigrants approach life in the United States, although the traditional patterns of first- and second-generation immigrants still follow more familiar patterns of assimilation. (When I write this, I think of myself as a good example: I’m a first-generation American, my parents immigrating here from Trinidad for my father’s career as a university professor. I think I’m still of this hypen/bridge generation that straddles both worlds. If you’re really interested in this, my public radio colleagues over at Southern California Public Radio are doing a really neat job of reporting on this in their MultiAmerican project, check them out.)

-Even with this level of modern globalization, the unskilled immigrant who comes to the United States finds  a vastly different work landscape than previous generations. As Gort told me, “What’s different now is that we are in a society that requires much formal educational attainment, and we’re living in an economy where businesses no longer really train people from the ground up. If that is the case, then when we think about the typical upward mobility we have to think the only door that is still wide open to them to assure that opportunity is entrepreneurship.”

That was, for me, an interesting take on why there may be even more entrepreneurs now than in previous generations. Your thoughts on how else this is different?

CHICAGO – Cities across the Midwest are full of immigrant stories. Previous generations filled the factories, building cars, furniture and steel. Now that those jobs are disappearing, cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh are hoping another wave of immigrants will help reinvigorate the economy. Changing Gears is a new public media project looking at the reinvention of the industrial Midwest. In this story, we look at the role immigrant entrepreneurs are playing in our economy.

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On Chicago’s Southwest Side, the 26th Street corridor in Little Village is hopping. It’s Saturday morning, and the streets are full of families, wheeling carts and kids in strollers as they shop.

I’m standing outside the Little Village Chamber of Commerce with its new director, Nilda Esparza and its vice-chair, Robert Garza. They’re talking about how this area is the cultural and economic home to the city’s Mexican population.

Esparza says you’ll find anywhere from 500 to 600 businesses, just on this strip.

“Everything from A to Z,” adds Garza, himself an entrepreneur. “From grocery stores, travel agencies, just about anything, you can find here on 26th Street.”

Garza’s family came here from Mexico the 1940s. They opened one of the first grocery stores in the area. Now, it’s a bustling center of city commerce. Little Village has the largest concentration of Mexican-Americans in the Midwest.

“Little Village is a place where a lot of us have started, a lot of us have flourished,” says Jesus Davila, as he stands outside Davila’s Restaurant – just one of his four businesses. He says his two restaurants alone make at least a million and a half dollars in revenue a year. He also has another business that makes small parts, and a photo studio – even though they do more than just photos there.

“Here we also do income taxes, we help people with their immigration forms, and that keeps us going year round,” he says.

Three hundred miles to the east, Steve Tobocman looks at neighborhoods like Chicago’s Little Village and is not just envious – he’s trying to figure out how it can be replicated in Southeast Michigan.

“I think immigrants represent a tremendous potential,” he says.  “Already the role that they’re playing, for example here in Southeast Michigan, is that they are critical components of energy driving us to the new economy”.

Tobocman is in charge of the Global Detroit Initiative. He’s working with Pittsburgh and Cleveland to try to make all of their cities more welcoming to immigrants, because he sees these people as key to helping kickstart their economies.

He points to Hispanic and Arab communities that are repopulating parts of Detroit – creating rare economic bright spots.

Tobocman also likes to reel off figures like this one: In Michigan, almost 40 percent of the tech businesses started in the past decade were created by immigrants. This from a state where just five percent of its population was born outside the country.

One way Detroit is working with Cleveland and Pittsburgh is to create a regional center for a government visa program called the EB-5. That’s where would-be immigrants who are willing to invest a million dollars and create ten American jobs qualify for a green card  - for them and their families.

“I think being open to attracting the intellectual capital is going to be critical to the 21st Century,” he says.

Back in Chicago, a group of three dozen university computer science students are handing in a coding test. It’s an effort by the Illinois Technology Association to ensure that the next generation of entrepreneurs stays in the Midwest.

Terry Howerton is the head of the industry group. He looks at companies like Netscape, Paypal, Youtube and Oracle as the ones that got away.

“All of those people have one thing in common: an Illinois education,” he says. “And they have another thing in common: they slipped away from our community. They built their companies somewhere else. They created massive amounts of jobs, and massive amounts of wealth, somewhere else.

So for the first time this year, the tech group visited seven universities throughout Illinois. They fed computer students lots of pizza and gave them the first round of tests. The top 45 made it to Chicago – where they’ve sat another two hour exam. The winner gets $5,000. More importantly, there are recruiters from a dozen or so Illinios-based tech waiting outside the room to meet and interview the test-takers.

Most of the room is full of international students – mostly from China, and India, but also Eastern Europe. In the past five years, more of these students are going back to their home countries and starting businesses there.

But Howerton hopes finding them jobs in Illinois will make the students stay.

Vivek  Thyagarajan is a senior at the University of Illinois. He’s 22. He ticks off a few on his list of reasons why he wants to stay here instead of going home to India: American corporate culture here, American lifestyle, and American money.

He points out he’s not in a position to bargain for where he wants to go. He needs to go where the jobs are, because his employer will sponsor him. But all things being equal, he’ld love to move to Chicago.

He’s an electrical engineering student. And he points across the street to the Willis Tower as yet another reason for staying.

“I love the design,” he says. “I love the city because of the amazing architecture, this is where the skyscraper was born. So yeah, I’d love to stay here.”

Thyaragun’s goal is to have a job offer before May, when he’s set to graduate.