Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Immigrants make America stronger, and we need them now more than ever

Immigrants and refugees have always helped revitalize declining communities and strengthen the U.S. economy. Minnesota is a prime example.

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Speaking at a naturalization ceremony in 2018, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told 31 new citizens hailing from 26 countries that, “We are a nation made strong by people like you … people who traveled long distances, overcame great obstacles and made tremendous sacrifices, all to provide a better life for themselves and their families.”

Sadly, Justice Ginsburg’s vision of America contrasts sharply with the current reality. On Sept. 30, the Trump administration announced that it would cap the number of refugees the United States will admit to the lowest number in 40 years. The hard truth is that this hateful policy makes our nation less safe and less equipped to overcome the vicious effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Article continues after advertisement

Our nation is facing its worst crisis in more than 100 years. The coronavirus has killed more than 211,000 Americans and 2,100 Minnesotans, and our economy is crippled. We need new Americans — refugees and immigrants — now more than ever to provide essential services, kick-start growth, and keep our country safe.

Jeff Le
Jeff Le
Coming from refugee families ourselves, we recognize that immigrants are on the front lines of the pandemic. More than 170,000 refugees in the food industry keep us fed. More than 176,000 take care of our loved ones as physicians and health care workers. They are not only keeping us safe. They are also driving economic growth.

Immigrants and refugees have always helped revitalize declining communities and strengthen the U.S. economy. Minnesota is a prime example. In St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen and Frogtown and Minneapolis’ Seward and Cedar Riverside neighborhoods, we’ve seen the positive impact that immigrant-owned businesses have made on the local economy. New Minnesotans — like the state’s 69,000 Somali-Americans, 66,000 Hmong-Americans, and 23,000 Vietnamese-Americans — take on critical yet hard-to-fill roles, such as caregivers for the elderly and disabled. Minnesota immigrants make up 18 percent of these workers.

Article continues after advertisement

New Americans don’t just fill positions. They also grow jobs by driving innovation and entrepreneurship.While immigrants constitute 15% of the U.S. workforce, they make up over 25% of entrepreneurs. Investing in refugees and immigrants means a stronger economy. For example, from 2004 to 2014, refugees in the United States actually generated $63 billion more in government revenue than was spent on public services for them.

Vera Zakem
Vera Zakem
The president’s decision to restrict visas this year doesn’t protect the economy. It brings self-inflicted harm to our recovery, creativity, and innovation. It freezes temporary work visas for skilled workers, such as software engineers and medical practitioners; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and business groups have challenged the measure because of the economic damage it will do. The punitive measures prevent 167,000 temporary workers from filling key vacancies and hurts Minnesota’s immigrant-owned businesses, which generated over $289 million in business income and employed more than 53,000 Minnesotans.

Finally, immigrants have also made our country safer, at home and abroad. Today, 40,000 immigrants serve in the armed forces and an estimated 511,000 military veterans are foreign-born. For these heroes who put their lives on the line, the U.S. naturalization ceremony takes on a special meaning.

Given the crises we face at home and abroad, the time has come for new leadership and direction. As you evaluate your options for president and Congress on Nov. 3, consider officials who will do the following:

  • Boost our economy by prioritizing integration, promoting entrepreneurship, and increasing access to language instruction.
  • Unfreeze temporary work visas for skilled workers in innovation, technology, healthcare, and research sectors.
  • Rescind the un-American travel and refugee ban (aka “Muslim ban”).
  • Order an immediate review of Temporary Protected Status for vulnerable populations ripped from safety by violence or disaster.

Article continues after advertisement

The world is watching how we treat others and are taking note. New Americans have helped spur America’s economic and military strength, and with a more inclusive and diverse country we can build back better. Justice Ginsburg and new Minnesotans would agree.

Jeff Le was deputy cabinet secretary to former California Gov. Jerry Brown from 2015 to 2019; he oversaw economic development, immigration, and homeland security issues. His family came to the United States as refugees from Vietnam. Follow Jeff @JeffreyDLe.

Vera Zakem is the founder of Zakem Global Strategies and a senior technology and policy adviser at the Institute for Security and Technology. She advises organizations on the intersection of democracy, technology, and society. Her family were refugees and immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and her in-laws currently reside in Minnesota. Follow her @verleza.

Article continues after advertisement

If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)