Located on the Detroit River, which separates the United States from Canada, Detroit became one of the great industrial cities of the United States by the end of the 19th century, attracting immigrant labor from eastern Europe and the Middle East. It became an important cultural hub for Italians, Bulgarians, Romanians, and Serbs, among others. From the 1970s, greater Detroit became increasingly recognized as the center of Arab settlement in the United States, with a population of approximately 200,000.
France’s Fort Pontchartrain, established in 1701, was the first settlement founded along the north bank of the Detroit River. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 encouraged settlement from New York and New England, and completion of the Sault (Soo) Sainte Marie Canals along the Canadian border fostered the early development of Detroit as an industrial center. Between 1860 and 1880, the population grew from 45,600 to 116,000. A good transport system and a large supply of labor helped Detroit become the capital of the automotive industry during the early 20th century, and by 1910, the population had jumped to 465,766. Although the percentage of foreignborn immigrants declined from 44 percent in 1870 to 40 percent in 1890 and 34 percent in 1910, the dramatic increase in population meant that the majority of citizens during this period were either first- or second-generation immigrants. Prior to World War I (1914–18), Detroit plants and factories attracted large numbers of Greeks, Macedonians, Poles, Romanians, and Serbs. Syrian Druzes and Ottoman Turks created significant Muslim communities that would later serve as magnets for their coreligionists from other parts of the Middle East. Between 1880 and 1920, the largest non-Anglo ethnic groups in the city were Irish, Germans, and Poles.
With passage of the restrictive Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, Detroit plants and factories increasingly turned to domestic labor supplies, mainly poor southerners, both black and white. Earlier immigrants nevertheless continued to migrate to Detroit for jobs, and Canada provided a backdoor for unauthorized immigration. With U.S. entry into World War II (1939–45) in 1941, the auto plants were transferred to military production, further stimulating the northward migration. Between 1910 and 1950, the population more than tripled to 1,849,568. As overcrowding became a problem and crime increased, by the late 1950s, people who could afford to were rapidly moving to the suburbs. At the same time, Arabs from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds were migrating westward from New York City and by 1970, had made Detroit the leading Arab city in the United States, with a population of more than 70,000. The auto industry and the large Muslim community continued to attract immigrants from the Middle East, especially Iraqis, Yemenis, Palestinians, and Bosniaks. Despite provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which have encouraged the export of industrial jobs, Detroit remained the automotive capital of the country into the 21st century.
The 1990s saw a massive influx of Hispanic and Asian immigrants to Detroit, significantly altering the ethnic character of the city. Asian growth, including those from multiracial backgrounds, jumped 133 percent, and Hispanics 61 percent. In 2000, metropolitan Detroit had the seventh largest foreign-born population in the United States, though its percentage of foreign born was relatively low at 7.4 percent. It is only 14th in the nation as a magnet for immigrants, but still attracts people from around the world. The largest communities are still the older, largely assimilated German, Irish, Polish, and Italian. In 2000, however, the official Mexican and Arab populations were both over 100,000, with the actual figure much higher. Among the recent ethnic groups, the largest were Asian Indians (49,782), Lebanese (47,411), and Iraqis (10,628). As one journalist put it, Detroit “is more of a mosaic than a blend of racially mixed people.”