We hear on the national campaign trail about the need to get tough on immigration, even closing the doors to people who would legally seek refuge and opportunity here. Gratefully, Utah is receiving much-deserved attention for approaching immigration policy in a way that is rational, compassionate and, as it happens, makes for sound economic policy.
Recently, Salt Lake County was selected as one of 20 communities recognized by a campaign called Gateways for Growth, which entails devoting public and private resources to welcoming and integrating new immigrants. The idea is to create an environment “where all residents can contribute and succeed.” The campaign is based on the premise that it is in a community’s best interests to encourage assimilation and give new arrivals the opportunity to play a part in an area’s economic welfare. The initiative runs in stark contrast to the narrative offered by political opportunists who argue, with more anecdote than fact, that immigrants take away jobs and create a drain on prosperity.
Instead of scapegoating immigrants, Salt Lake County has recognized the value of recruiting and supporting new residents who can serve in an entrepreneurial capacity to further economic growth. The county has helped form the “New Americans Task Force,” made up of 60 business and community leaders called together to brainstorm ways to recruit and support immigrant entrepreneurs. The initiative is not about charity. Business leaders have come to recognize that new immigrants guide innovation in many fields. More than a third of innovators were born outside of the U.S., according to Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who helped organize the task force.
Overall, the immigrant community is a significant contributor to the local economy. In Salt Lake County, the percentage of foreign-born residents increased 20 percent between 2009 and 2014. That population now contributes about $8 billion to the local economy. There are nearly 7,000 immigrant-owned businesses in the county that generate nearly $150 million in annual income.
In truth, there would be no local economy without immigrants. This community was founded by those who migrated here in search of a new beginning, followed by generations of foreign-born émigrés who assimilated into the culture and have served to advance it with enterprise, diversity and civic commitment.
In other places, immigrants have been segregated and ostracized. The term “ghettoization” is used to describe the plight of Muslim refugees settled in large European cities. Those are not healthy communities. Where the newly arrived are able to assimilate into the prevailing culture, there are fewer problems with violent dissidence and common crime.
But assimilation takes time and requires a commitment from the hosting population. It is good to see that leaders in Utah’s public and private sectors recognize that strong communities are built with empathy and support for all of those who seek to join.