6 people sat around a dinner table in Oronoco township last night discussing the assets of immigrants. The dialogue was part of the Table Talk series funded by VOICES [Valuing Our Immigrants’ Contributions to Economic Success] and the Rochester Diversity Council. Rather than delving into the political or the emotionally charged aspects of immigration debate, this discussion centered on the assets immigrants bring to our community. “Community” was widely defined, as we had participants from Winona, Austin, and Rochester.
Throughout the two-and-a-half hours, we discussed the many seen and unseen ways in which immigrants add value to our community. We discussed how immigrants’ work ethic has enabled many American businesses to stay here in the U.S. rather than outsource. We discussed how immigrants bring a world perspective to any community, how international events and comity are much more real when one knows people from that region. We discussed how immigrants are forcing the United States to adapt and succeed in a globalized economy. Immigrants also bring globalization to the U.S. in the many different foods, languages, and customs they carry with them.
During the discussion, there were some probing questions about whether these assets actually had negative counterparts to them. One participant inquired whether immigrants are a drain on our economy, in that they use welfare, social services, and healthcare. The group addressed this idea, coming to the conclusion that immigrants, and particularly the undocumented immigrants at whom this question was directed, live in the shadows and are the last people to try to use public benefits. Additionally, since immigration doesn’t occur in a vacuum, it is overly simplistic and intellectually dishonest to conclude that immigrants strain or drain the economy without looking at the money they put back into the community through sales, purchases, work product, taxes, and tithes to the church.
Even in a small group of this size, the personal experiences of each individual with immigrants were extensive. From social service work with a Sudanese family to a clothing shelf geared to Latinos, from migrant farmworker legal issues to Vietnamese co-workers in a commercial cleaning agency, from ESL students and international college students to the previous VOICES for a where Somali and Hmong communities voiced their ideas about their contribution and integration in Rochester’s community – it was easy to see the multitudinous ways in which we had all been influenced and impacted by immigrants. And while it is a sweeping generalization to even use the word “immigrant,” most of us who had interacted with immigrants, asylum-seekers, refugees, and migrants all knew what amazing people they were and how much we had to learn from them. [For more information, read article by Christina Killion-Valdez in the Rochester Post-Bulletin]