Immigrant contributions cited at forum

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From left: Business Owner Israel Martinez, Business Owner Himanshu Dave, Rep. Joel Bomgar and Jackson State University Professor Nicholas Hill

Local economics experts and immigrant rights advocates on a Jackson panel Tuesday argued against what they called myths about immigrants who travel to the United States to work.

One of them is whether immigrants occupy positions that would otherwise be filled by United States-born citizens.

“The immigrants who come do not necessarily take away,” said panelist Nicholas Hill, an associate professor of economics at Jackson State University. “Labor is not substitutable. It’s not that we are replacing. They are actually complementary. By increasing that particular pool, that increases the hire of local natives also. It’s a complementary effect that we are starting to see that goes along with that.”

Hill voiced his views along with three panelists that included a state representative and two business owners who immigrated to the United States in a public discussion titled “JXN Immigration Forum”.

This event took place just before Thursdy’s deadline for eligible immigrants to renew their status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services estimates that Mississippi as of last month is home to 1,200 DACA recipients.

The Trump administration formally announced last month it would phase out the program that protects immigrants who entered the country illegally as children unless Congress passes a permanent law to protect them. Until then, the future of those enrolled in the program remains uncertain.

Organizing for Action Mississippi, Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, Indivisible Mississippi and nonprofits hosted the public discussion on immigration, which took place in front of about 35 people at Fondren Church.

Panelists addressed the economic impact of immigrants throughout Mississippi, covering issues such as labor; trade; border security and how advocates can propose changes to legislators at the state and national level.

Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, addressed one of the most difficult topics of the night brought up by a business owner in Madison: why do some Mississippi legislators and constituents have anti-immigration ideologies?

Bomgar brought up the analogy of how people who used horses and carriages may have reacted to the automobile.

“I think it’s just an innate human desire for things to be the way they are, and to be uncomfortable with things changing,” Bomgar said. “There’s just no good argument not to have (a less restrictive system where those who want to come here and work can do so) if you’re going to look at it from an economics perspective.”

Meanwhile, Himanshu Dave, co-owner of Salsa Mississippi Club & Studio, expanded on how the benefits of immigration are widespread thanks to how large and diverse immigrants’ skill sets are. The group consists of entrepreneurs in high-skill jobs to low-skill, low wage workers who fill in gaps in the labor market, and everything in between, he said.

“High-tech industries benefit the most from immigration because they are the H-1B, H-2B visa programs that help immigrants come in,” Dave said. “On the other side are the low-skill jobs that many immigrants take up. … Although they are coming in as a low-skill job, the contribution is far greater and the economic and cultural diversity they bring in is always good. When somebody comes in with fresh ideas and a new approach, it benefits everyone. It’s definitely a win-win.”

The panelists also addressed current immigration policy and encouraged communities to contact their representatives and make known their support for immigration rights.

Israel Martinez, owner of storm shelter construction company, Torshel, told the audience not to depend on the administration to make changes while they sit there idle.

“If U.S. citizens are going to wait until the next president takes place and makes the change, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Martinez said. “We need to send letters. We need to make some noise. We need to yell, ‘Hey, this is not right.’  … Those steps can be done for the long term. This is not going to be solved in the next four years.”