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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah civic and business leaders, DACA recipients and formerly undocumented immigrants called upon Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney to back bipartisan bills focused on immigration reform Wednesday, citing economic and moral imperatives.
Leaders at the event, held at the World Trade Center Utah, emphasized the important role immigrants have in Utah's economy. As Utah emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, like most of the nation, it's confronted with a severe labor shortage. The labor shortage is expected to persist as Utah's unemployment rate trends towards its pre-pandemic levels and nearly 95% of the DACA-eligible population in Utah is employed.
Utah continues to be a place where immigrants contribute to the rich fabric of our community. Immigrants in Utah are entrepreneurs, they are teachers, they are leaders, they are part of our family.
–Derek Miller, president and CEO of Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce
Bob Worsley, the founder of SkyMall and co-chairman of American Business Immigration Coalition's Intermountain chapter, said that immigration reform is essential to the United States' growth as it's confronted with declining birth rates and a generation retiring in waves. Worsley emphasized that to continue to compete with nations such as China or India, the U.S. must look to immigration as an immediate solution.
"With the House passage of the DREAM Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act we are closer to passing sorely needed bipartisan immigration reform to help drive our economy forward. Immigration is the largest driver of U.S. economic growth and that means welcoming new immigrants," said Worsley, a former Republican state senator.
He continued, "We must change the discourse in America about immigration. We need to stop maligning them and help Americans understand that a large number of future Americans need to enter through modern ports of entry legally with legal visas issued from modern immigration systems. Nativism will not lead to growth in U.S. (gross domestic product). Translation: Significant legal immigration leads to prosperity for all."
The group also advocated for the passage of the Safe Environment from Countries Under Repression and Emergency Act or the SECURE act.
Data from New American Economy, which describes itself as a bipartisan research and advocacy organization and was a co-sponsor or Wednesday's event, showed that in 2019 Utah had 272,134 immigrant residents who paid approximately $1.8 billion dollars in taxes and had $5.8 billion dollars in spending power.
"Utah continues to be a place where immigrants contribute to the rich fabric of our community. Immigrants in Utah are entrepreneurs, they are teachers, they are leaders, they are part of our family. They contribute billions of dollars in economic activity and they brighten the landscape of our state. Utah is a place of compromise and goodwill and we call upon these virtues to be a guide to our national leaders," said Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.
Data provided by New American Economy said that immigrant entrepreneurs in 2019 generated a total business income of $349 million dollars. Among those entrepreneurs is the president and CEO of Nightingale College, Mikhail Shneyder.
"The issue of immigration reform is deeply personal to me. I came to the United States at the age of 19 escaping persecution in my motherland, ethnic persecution, and in hopes of finding the American dream," Shneyder said.
Shneyder learned English, became licensed as a registered nurse, gained U.S. citizenship, earned an MBA at the University of California at Berkeley and went on to build and lead Nightingale College. Schneyder said that Nightingale relies on a diverse workforce, looking to immigrants to fulfill positions ranging from service to leadership.
The variety of workforce needs are reflected in immigrants who are more likely to hold an advanced degree than the U.S.-born but are also less likely to have less than a high school education. The spectrum allows immigrants to fulfill shortages at both ends of employment needs from high-tech fields to agriculture, hospitality and service industries.
Multiple leaders expressed the shortage of labor in the service industry and emphasized the importance of immigrants who are willing to fill those roles.
But Mayra Cedano, a formerly undocumented immigrant and current executive director of Comunidades Unidas, said that this crucial moment for immigration reform goes beyond the economy.
"When this country called our workers to step up and support our communities as frontline workers, undocumented workers were there. They quickly became the essential workers that picked the food that we eat, built the neighborhoods that we live in, cleaned the homes and the businesses, stocked our shelves, taught our own children," Cedano said. "Immigrant essential workers have continuously put their health and that of their families on the line to keep all of us protected, yet many immigrant workers fear not being able to see their families at the end of the day because of the risk of being deported."
Sixty-nine percent of all immigrants in the U.S. labor force and 74% of undocumented workers are essential workers, according to data from the Center for Migration Studies.
"We can't both be deportable and essential. Now is the time for a grateful nation to step up. Essential workers without permanent legal status should be recognized as the Americans they already are," Cedano added.
The event was sponsored by the American Business Immigration Coalition Intermountain Chapter, Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, New American Economy, Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, Utah World Trade Center and Mormon Women for Ethical Government.