With the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary behind us, the election race intensifies and so too perhaps the rhetoric, positive and negative, about immigrants.
We believe there still exists an opportunity for incremental steps forward to re-unite our all too divided nation even in an election year.
Moving beyond contentious debates and calls for immigration reform — “comprehensive” or not — it is time for a bipartisan embrace of focused, common-sense steps.
America is at a crossroads, and contradictions abound.
In the halls of our nation’s capital and across our country, descendants of immigrants and refugees support closing the door just a tad bit more for new arrivals. And otherwise strict adherents to the rule of law are prepared to look the other way on those who may well have broken existing immigration laws to enter the United States, often risking their lives with young children in tow.
This issue, though deeply emotional, is not an insignificant one, and understandably has particular resonance in our largest state, California. The United States today has more immigrants than any other country in the world. In 2017, nearly 50 million people living in the United States were born in other countries, according to United Nations international migrant data.
And the Golden State has more immigrants than any other state—some 11 million—according to the Public Policy Institute of California. In 2017, foreign-born residents represented at least one-third of the population in five California counties in 2017: Santa Clara (39 percent), San Francisco (36 percent), San Mateo (35 percent), Los Angeles (34 percent) and Almaden (33 percent).
Half of California children have at least one immigrant parent.
A good portion of past national conversations around immigration focused on building a U.S.-Mexico wall, as part of strengthened border security. This has unnecessarily divided people and worsened ethnic tensions. It is time for a paradigm shift.
Every American is shaped by his or her own experiences and unique tale that is one’s family’s “American story.” This is as true for us — a first-generation Tibetan-American and former refugee and immigrant from India, and a fourth-generation Chinese-American and fourth ever U.S. ambassador of Chinese heritage — as it is for anyone in the United States in pursuit of the American Dream.
For us, we also have seen first-hand the challenges and complexities of immigrant integration, including through past board work at World Education Services — a non-profit focused on credential evaluations, research and ongoing support for international students and skilled immigrants in the United States and Canada — or present work leading Kinstep—a Silicon Valley enterprise platform that believes every immigrant deserves the opportunity to earn a fair and steady wage as they acclimate to a new home.
So, how do we move the immigration discussion forward?
We propose three steps focused first and foremost on integrating the existing immigrant community.
First, language matters. We must reshape the immigrant conversation around a common incentive — economic empowerment for immigrants. Frequently, existing conversations focus on terms like crisis, neglect, and isolation. The conversation should instead center on dignity and economic opportunity. When given an option, immigrants don’t want to depend on humanitarian aid, they’d much rather work.
Second, engagement is critical. We must find dynamic ways to deepen economic exchange for immigrants and local communities. It is not a myth that immigrants are often the hardest workers. In 2018, the labor force participation rate of immigrants was 65.7 percent, higher than the 62.3 percent rate for the native-born, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Centering policy around empowering immigrants must involve immigrants themselves, and recognize the need for differing programs for differing skill levels. Kinstep’s original early-stage research found that 90 percent of immigrants we surveyed were in a job in which they had no experience, exposure or expertise.
Third, we must incentivize innovation that embraces all human capital, including that of America’s robust immigrant heritage and community. We must explore incentives for companies that complement existing job creation programs with pathways for immigrant integration.
Enabling coherence around policy for immigrant innovation should be an important component of any national strategy to foster competitiveness on a global stage. Silicon Valley, in particular, can cater to and propel the creative ideas by and for immigrants in our midst.
Out of adversity, the entrepreneurial muscle and ethos are built — to fail fast and rise up.
In each of these three areas, we believe that America’s finance and tech community can play a critical role in integrating immigrants. From Tesla to eBay, there is often an immigrant entrepreneur behind America’s most dynamic companies. We must build on that.
Wall or no wall, authorized or unauthorized, the number of immigrants in the United States will only increase given global migration trends. Our nation cannot afford to ignore or undermine the importance of integrating the many refugees and immigrants already in the United States, even as debates will go on about the who, why and how of future immigration.
America’s history proves that its openness towards immigrants has overall enriched its economy and culture, and solidified its influence in the world today. In that belief there lies an opportunity for any U.S. president, today or tomorrow, to re-unite and re-build America.
Tenzin Seldon is a Forbes honoree and first Tibetan-American Rhodes Scholar. He is the founder of Kinstep, a Silicon Valley social enterprise platform that connects immigrants to safe and steady jobs. Curtis. S. Chin is a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, the inaugural Asia fellow of the Los-Angeles-based Milken Institute and managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow them on Twitter at @TenzinSeldon_ and @CurtisSChin.
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