It’s 1986: The Cosby Show and Cheers are at the height of popularity, the Soviet Union is still intact, and the World Wide Web has yet to be invented. It’s also the last year Congress will pass substantial immigration reform thanks to our very own Senator Al Simpson in the Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. A few years ago, Al shared how tough it was to pass that bill and how disappointed he is that the bill is so divisive today. Indeed, in today’s increasingly combative political environment complex issues like immigration reform have been reduced to divisive partisan rhetoric. Our politicians think in election cycles and avoid stepping across the aisle on issues for fear it’ll hurt them come re-election time—Al discussed this alongside former governor Mike Sullivan in a recent Wyoming PBS special co-hosted by Wyoming Humanities called “Reviving Civility in Politics..Is It Possible?”.
If this year’s presidential race taught us anything, it’s that the American people are frustrated with the inaction of those in Washington. But what are we to do about it? Wyoming Humanities believes that taking a closer look at the underlying issues through community conversations guided by people with recognized expertise in the matter is the only way to address the challenging issues of our times.
When it comes to talking about immigration in Wyoming and in the United States, we are turning to bi-partisan/non-partisan experts to demand conversations, grounded in facts, be had all around the state. We are partnering with the University of Wyoming College of Law’s Center for International Human Rights Law & Advocacy and the think-tank organization New American Economy (NAE) to bring independently verified state-specific research detailing how immigrants impact our local economies. The idea is to help our citizens and legislators use these facts to think about ways to fix our broken system and enact smart, economically-driven reform that will benefit us all.
Our world has changed dramatically in the last three decades. From the technologies we use to our methods of communication, major advancements have taken place in almost every aspect of our lives. But as we’ve evolved and moved forward in an effort to adapt to our rapidly changing environment, our immigration system has remained frozen in time. You wouldn’t use a cell phone from the eighties. So why would we use policies that are similarly outdated and unable to address current realities?
According to NAE’s report on Wyoming’s immigrants, the current reality for our state is that our foreign-born population is contributing in a myriad of ways, starting with the $556.7 million their households earned in 2014. And while they only account for 4 percent of our state’s total population today, they make up 5.1 percent of our employed population, making them almost 29 percent more likely to be actively employed than native residents. Plus, they frequently gravitate toward sectors where employers struggle to find enough interested U.S.-born workers. In Wyoming, they make up 16.4 percent of workers in traveler accommodations, an industry that includes desk clerks and hotel maintenance, and 16.3 percent of workers in nursing care facilities, contributing to the state’s sizable hospitals, nursing, and residential-care industry, a sector that added $427 million to our Gross Domestic Product in 2014.
Science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) fields are projected to play a key role in our country’s economic growth through at least 2024. But in Wyoming, we’re experiencing a major labor shortage. For every one unemployed STEM worker in our state in 2014, there were 26.7 STEM job openings. Immigrants are already doing their part to ensure our state remains a leading innovator in STEM fields like mining engineering and advanced manufacturing, but our flawed immigration system often prevents employers from being able to recruit and retain the high-skilled international workforce they need, hindering their growth and future job creation.
Wyoming’s immigrants also boasted the second-fastest growth rate in the country between 2010 and 2014, doubling in size from 2 percent. That growth is good for the economy because it’s good for job creation. NAE determined that for every 1,000 immigrants who arrived in a given U.S. county, 46 manufacturing jobs are preserved that wouldn’t otherwise exist or would have moved elsewhere. In Wyoming, that translates to 800 manufacturing jobs the almost 17,000 immigrants who were living here in 2010 are responsible for creating or preserving.
By reforming our immigration system, we will be opening the door to major workforce and economic growth for our state. No single policy will cure all of the problems plaguing our system, but reasonable steps toward reform have the potential to bring long-lasting benefits to the people of Wyoming. How can we move forward? We think using the humanities to tell the stories of our immigrant population alongside the economic facts of their existence in our state will help us carry on these most urgent conversations that we need to have about the future of our state and the soul of our nation.