More than 13% of people living in the U.S. are immigrants, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey. That’s 42.4 million people. Studies indicate that the immigrant population will only continue to grow.
Amid this the heated discourse surrounding immigration during this election year, FWD.us President Todd Schulte argues that lifting up the U.S. immigrant community is important now more than ever.
Enter Immigrant Heritage Month, a unique effort facilitated across the country by Welcome.us, a national nonprofit formed by FWD.us that empowers the growing U.S. immigrant community. The national initiative is in its third year, but June was officially named Immigrant Heritage Month by President Barack Obama in 2015.
“(Immigrant Heritage Month) is driven by a desire and a purpose to celebrate the fact that a great, great thing that sets (the U.S.) apart from other nations is that we’re made up of immigrants and that’s what makes us strong,” Schulte said.
Throughout the entire four weeks of Immigrant Heritage Month, organizers provide programming around the country that promotes diversity, pride, and thoughtful discussion about the growing foreign-born population in the U.S. For a list of events around the country, click here.
While there are no official Immigrant Heritage Month events in San Antonio, all supporters of the initiative are encouraged to participate and use #IAmAnImmigrant on social media to promote their individual heritage while also coming together in the unique, shared experience of the immigrant identity in the U.S.
This year, 48 states are participating in the initiative as well as immigrant and non-immigrant local and national leaders, companies, politicians, and even celebrities like Lupita Nyong’o, Kerry Washington, Julianne Moore, and Rosario Dawson to restore the pride to being an immigrant in the U.S., especially in the face of prejudice. Some supporters have already shared their own unique stories in photos and video as part of the effort.
To see some of the participants’ stories, click here.
“I’m very proud of where I come from,” Luis. P. Gonzalez, Mexican immigrant and CEO of Parlevel Systems, a local vending management software company, told the Rivard Report on Tuesday. “(Being an immigrant) is just part of my identity and I think all immigrants need to be proud of sharing where they came from, what they know, and (recognize) that that diversity that they bring is incredibly positive for the communities here in the U.S.”
Immigrant Heritage Month is part of the bigger picture in the fight for immigration reform, since it aims to also highlight the significant contributions immigrants have made to the country, which includes bringing diverse cultural perspectives to commerce and innovation. Most may not realize that foreign inventors are behind 76% of patents earned by the top 10 patent-earning universities in the U.S., according to a 2011 report by the bipartisan Partnership for a New Economy.
Overall, Schulte said, immigrants play an important role in keeping the U.S. competitive in the global economy. Every foreign student who graduates from a U.S. university with an advanced degree and stays and works in a STEM-related field creates an additional 2.62 U.S. jobs. Additionally, more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, and 25% of all small businesses in the U.S. were started by immigrants, according to data provided by FWD.us.
“The thing that I hear from people on the cutting edge of innovation and the tech community and people out there growing businesses in the country is that access to talent (is important),” Schulte said, “and that in a further globalizing economy, (we need to make) sure that the best and brightest here can stay here, and make sure we have a workforce that is able to market products for the rest of the world.”
Strict immigration laws make it extremely difficult for foreign-born entrepreneurs and students to remain in the U.S., no matter the amount of high-level skills they’ve attained in U.S. universities or their success as entrepreneurs.
At a panel about immigration and the start-up community in February, Austin-based immigration attorney Jason Finkelman told the Rivard Report that getting a work visa in U.S. as a “highly-skilled, highly-educated international person” is more difficult than one would think.
Like so many immigrants, Gonzalez came to the U.S. for opportunity, he said. He enrolled in community college, learned English, and eventually earned a business degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Gonzalez’s natural entrepreneurial spirit, which is a common trait in his family back home in Cohuila, Mexico, led him to create Parlevel, which has continued to grow since its inception.
But Gonzalez has experienced firsthand the challenges of navigating an immigration system “that is not set up for entrepreneurs.” If lawmakers stifle the system’s evolution into one that better suits the country’s changing entrepreneurial landscape, it could be detrimental, he said.
“I truly believe that other countries and other nations that are trying to move to a power status which the U.S. has (are) realizing that bringing that type of talent (in immigrants) and finding a way to keep it here and having that talent spread their knowledge with people who already live in the U.S. is probably the most important advantage that the U.S. has,” Gonzalez said. “If we don’t fix (the immigration system), it can really hurt the competitive edge of innovation and the U.S.’ ability of being number one in many aspects.”
U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) and U.S. Rep. William Hurd (R-Texas) are two of several local politicians who see Immigrant Heritage Month as key in promoting cultural diversity in the states as well as in advocating for immigration reform to advance the nation in the global economy.
“As a supporter in Congress, and there are other supporters as well, (I’m working) to really highlight the initiative and highlight the importance of the work that immigrants do (in the U.S.),” Castro said. “(Immigration Heritage Month) is really a celebration of that and a recognition of the contribution of immigrants from different countries and the fact that they contribute at all levels of society.”
Castro requested a point of order in the Texas House and is leading an initiative to replace the term “illegal alien” in the Library of Congress’ subject headings system to “noncitizens,” something that most House Republicans are fighting against.
For Schulte, achieving success across the board, for immigrants and the U.S. economy, would mean fixing a broken system that hasn’t evolved in decades. That would mean increasing funding to enact strong and sensible border security and creating easier pathways for immigrants to attain legal status and citizenship with background checks.
“Right now we don’t have a system of immigration laws that makes sense and they’re broken and can’t be enforced,” Schulte said. “We don’t have the ability to have people fully enforcing the law because if we did it would literally deport 11.5 million people and cost $630 billion.
“We should shift toward an immigration system that makes sense for today and is not based off a system from 50 years ago.”
Beyond advancing and remaining competitive in the global economy, all U.S. citizens this Immigrant Heritage Month should remember that the nation’s large and growing immigrant population is one that is unique to our country, a country of immigrants since the beginning, he said.
“The immigrant experience for so many people is a shared experience … People still come here for the same reasons as before. (Immigrant Heritage Month) is an opportunity for people to, whether your family came here 100 years ago or 10 years ago, talk about why (our immigrant population) makes our country great.”
Top image: Immigrant Heritage Month promotes pride in being an immigrant in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Welcome.us.