JobMakers is a podcast collaboration between The Immigrant Learning Center and the Pioneer Institute. In each episode, Director of the Public Education Institute Denzil Mohammed interviews an immigrant entrepreneur about their story, their business and their contributions to their community. The project highlights the unique resilience and journeys of foreign-born entrepreneurs. Explore the story of a refugee child who escaped pirates and grew up to found a law firm, a woman of color who opened a hedge fund in her dorm room and much more.
Episode 38: David Keane
Australian-born immigrant founder David Keane is launching new products and creating thousands of jobs as a leader in the tech industry. He believes that the United States’ willingness to welcome immigrants and take risks sets it apart in the increasingly global economy. Listen to learn how he thinks the next generation of entrepreneurs will migrate, create and innovate!
Episode 37: Johan Norberg
Author of Open: The Story of Human Progress and senior fellow at the Cato Institute Johan Norberg joins JobMakers to share history and research demonstrating how diversity strengthens economies and societies. Norberg also discusses how an obsession with types of “borders” and other limitations can limit progress. Tune in to learn the ways in which he sees progress already being constrained.
Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and this is the first JobMakers podcast episode of 2022.
Denzil Mohammed: The world seems pretty open, right? The internet, Netflix, telecommunication, travel and we benefit daily from that openness. Let’s have Mexican for lunch! Let’s take a trip! Let’s watch The Great British Bake Off! Ryan Reynolds, for heaven’s sake, he’s Canadian! But we’re also pretty closed in by borders, sovereign nations, state borders, rules and regulations that differ even by neighborhood that restrict what we can do. For Johan Norberg, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and author of Open: The Story of Human Progress, the proof is all around us. If history is a guide, openness and diversity mean faster progress, innovation and entrepreneurship. After all, if it weren’t for immigration, there’d be no Coors beer, no TJ Maxx, no Carnival cruises, no COVID-19 vaccine. By almost every indicator, the world is better off because it was open to the exchange of ideas and skills that created cures, machinery and technology. However, Norberg says that with today’s obsession with borders, the United States is already losing ground and entrepreneurs and inventors are going elsewhere; as you’ll learn in this week’s JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Johan Norberg, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast. How are you?
Johan Norberg: Thank you. I’m good! Thanks for having me.
Denzil Mohammed: And you’re all the way across the world in Sweden aren’t you?
Johan Norberg: Yes, that’s right. In dark, cold Sweden for the moment.
Denzil Mohammed: It’s getting dark and cold here as well. So, we can share that. We are going to talk about your book, Open: The Story of Human Progress. But I want to take it back a few years ago. In your previous book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, you said, “When people are allowed freedom, they don’t create chaos but progress.” How does that happen in an increasingly diverse world and particularly in the context of the U.S.?
Johan Norberg: Well, first of all, the results are in and we have just had 30 years that (and this is not what we hear on the news and this is not our everyday assumption), but 30 years that were the best 30 years in human history. When we look at objective indicators like the rise of health, wealth, the reduction in ancient scourges like poverty and illiteracy. We lifted 150,000 people out of extreme poverty every day for 30 years. So, apparently, something is being done right. And it is happening because of diversity. When we want to bring something new into the world, if we’re not content with the way things are, then we need innovation. We need new combinations, we need specialization and the ability to exchange with others who’ve learned something else, who’ve come up with something else. They might have stumbled onto a new innovation or specialized in a certain way of production. And that takes diversity. If we’re all the same with similar knowledge, similar skills, we don’t get much new into the world. So, it’s mixture and remixture. That’s what creates this progress.
Denzil Mohammed: And yet, you say this concept of longing for some distant past is really having a bad memory. And from what you’re saying now, it appears as though we are somehow oblivious about the progress that we have made in the recent past. Nearly half of the United States voted twice to get back to some sort of great time or place or idea. Where does that kind of nostalgia, or some might say delusion. where does that really come from?
Johan Norberg: Actually comes from ourselves. It comes from human nature. I also happen to think that all the good music that exists in the world was created in the 1980s and everything since then has been awful. When I talk to audiences around the world, I often ask them, “Think about this. When was the world at its most harmonious? When did we lead good lives? And in harmony with one another?” And most people end up with saying the era in which they grew up. So people who grew up in the fifties think it’s the fifties. People who grew up in the eighties think it’s the eighties. Those who grew up now, believe it or not, they are gonna look back on this day and age as the golden era. And I think that’s basic psychology. I think when you grow up, there’s this sense of the world as an adventure, but at the same time, it feels safe and secure because your parents are there to hopefully pick up your problems and your bills. But then you grow older and you get kids and you have to start worrying about everything that goes wrong and you learn about the world and everything then seems dangerous and scary. Because we still don’t have solutions to most of the problems that we’re obsessed with today. And we forget that every era faced the same difficulties and didn’t have the solutions that we now think of as ‘Oh, that’s simple.’ So I think its psychology is very easy to deceive us that ‘Look, something is wrong today,’ for demagogues to tell you that, ‘Look, isn’t the world a scary place? Let’s go back to something safe that we had,’ and that is dangerous. And that’s why we need history and economics and data, hard data points and statistics to really tell us how the world is really doing.
Denzil Mohammed: I was just about to ask how come we are so oblivious to the progress that we’ve made. And you talk about demagogues who want to take us back to some place that feels safe, right? Expand on this for me. Why are we so oblivious to the progress that we’ve made and the reasons for that progress?
Johan Norberg: Because problems solved are problems forgotten. We don’t think about the problem of smallpox and polio and soon, hopefully we’ll stop thinking about HIV/AIDS. But we are thinking that the world is going to the dogs because of COVID-19 and the pandemic. For simple and understandable reasons, we pay all our attention to the problems at hand because they are the ones that we have to solve. And then obviously, demagogues and politicians, they don’t activate you by saying, ‘Look, things are pretty good, right? So vote for me if you don’t care!’ That doesn’t work. They have to tell you something is worrying. ‘We have disloyal elites and strangers trying to tear everything down, but you need me basically.’ And the media obviously has an interest in scaring us, shocking us because then we have to turn to the news. Nobody pays attention to flights that landed safely. But if there’s a plane crash, obviously that makes the news.
Denzil Mohammed: Talk about this further in the context of immigration.
Johan Norberg: That’s very interesting because we can see exactly the same kind of development there. When you go back and look at waves of migration to different places, the first reaction people have is often ‘There might be a need; socially, economically for the migrant, but it’s also scary new people from another culture we don’t know, are they going to integrate or not?’ And it looks scary. In the United States when you’ve got strangers like Swedes over there in the mid 19th century and Germans, even people who liked migration and immigration like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin said, this is a little bit worrying because they come from non-democratic societies, and will they ever be able to integrate? And then obviously it didn’t take long until the Swedes and Germans were seen as the ideal model of what an immigrant should be like, especially compared to the dangerous Catholics who are coming now, the Italians and the Irish, because they’re dangerous. They’re criminals, and they have another faith, they’re loyal to Rome and the Pope. They will never be integrated. And obviously it didn’t take long before they got integrated and started working, building families. And people said, ‘Oh, they are great! But look at the next wave, the Chinese!’ or something like that. And we repeat the same thing over and over again. The latest wave of migrants are always scary, especially compared to previous ones. Because we’ve already learned of them, we’ve met them and we know that they didn’t tear our society down; they made it stronger.
Denzil Mohammed: You start your newest book, Open: The Story of Human Progress, with the time that then-President Trump scribbled in the margins of a speech he was about to give, ‘trade is bad’. Yet, you go on to argue very vividly that trade is basically indispensable to human life. It’s part of society. It’s part of civilization. Why were those three words so appealing to so many Americans?
Johan Norberg: Yes. That is really the thing we’ve got to think about and try to understand because trade is so incredibly important. It’s the reason why mankind conquered the planet because people, homo sapiens, learned early on how to cooperate with strangers and find mutual gains. And therefore, the moment somebody stumbles onto a way of controlling fire or inventing the wheel, we could all learn from it or how to go into space or read the genome of a new virus and come up with a vaccine. That’s what makes us strong, the ability to exchange and trade. But the reason why so many people believe what Trump says, that trade is bad and dangerous, is that people often think that the economy is zero-sum game. They think that ‘If somebody else is gaining from this transaction with us, then we must be the losers. So it’s always something that leaves us exposed to outsiders’. And that always looks bad. And obviously this is just a myth. The reason why we’ve gotten so strong and rich as we are, is specialization and trade. But it doesn’t feel like it, especially if the others are seeing more rapid growth than we do. Then you begin to think, ‘Oh, it’s the Mexicans and the Chinese, they are the ones gaining. It would be better if we concentrated production back home, and avoided trade.’ But if that were the case with national borders, well, why wouldn’t that be the case with city borders? Why should Manhattan buy from Brooklyn? Shouldn’t we be safer if we kept everything in Manhattan? You can turn your abilities and your hard work into the other things that you need. So basically the more access you have to such a machine, the better off you are. What Trump and many protectionists are saying is that, ‘Look, why do you produce iPhones in China? Wouldn’t it be better if we produce them back home? And in that case, we’d get all the rewards rather than giving some of them to the Chinese.’ And that’s a misunderstanding of how specialization works, because when you leave some of the routine manufacturing to another place, yes, it’s good for them because they get jobs and they get revenue, but it also means you can specialize more of your workforce in more productive areas. So more people who do the design and the programming and the marketing and the distribution. So if you look at a cell phone, an iPhone in your shop, you see how much is going to the Chinese. Well, around a little bit more than 1 percent of the price you pay for your iPhone goes to the Chinese. It’s not like they get all of it. Most of it go to American workers and to Apple and to the tax authorities. And that’s what specialization does. If you had to do all of those things back home in the U.S., well, then you would have to pay much more for that simple manufacturing, which means that many would buy a Huawei phone or something like that from China instead. And it would mean that you’d have to have much more production back home. So it’s a twin loss.
Denzil Mohammed: In your book Open, you say that your argument is that under open institutions, people will solve more problems than they create no matter their personality traits. And it’ll increase the chance that the paths of people with different traits cross and that their thoughts and work can cross-fertilize. You say that this will happen. How do you know that this is certain going forward?
Johan Norberg: Well, I hope I don’t disappoint you if I admit that I’m not certain that this will go forward, because it depends on our choices and it depends on politics. What I’m saying is that if we have open institutions, if we allow our societies to open, to surprises, to people coming up with new things and being free to exchange, this will get great innovations and discoveries and wealth production. It’s not just history and the study of human creativity. It’s mathematics. As they say in programming, ‘With a sufficient number of eyeballs looking at code, every bug is shallow because someone is bound to see the problem and fix it.’ Well, it’s the same thing with the world. The more eyeballs that are directed to our problems whatever they are, the greater the chance they will come up with solutions to it. But at the same time, we live in an era where people are afraid of this kind of openness, where we have plenty of demagogues telling us that no, it’s safe to hide behind walls, behind tariff barriers. And once in a while they do succeed and they might be able to turn inwards. And in that case, we won’t see as much of dynamic societies and innovation, we’ll be weaker for it. So it’s not automatic that this happens. And that’s, by the way, why I write my books. If it was automatic, I could go and do something else instead. But it’s necessary. It has to happen. We have to keep our institutions, our countries, our world open to continue to make progress.
Denzil Mohammed: And I think of the example of Moderna, which came up with one of the first vaccines and Derrick Rossi, immigrant from Canada, Noubar Afeyan and Flagship. It’s all these different people from all these different places who came together to found this company. Pfizer, the same thing, immigrant co-founders. We see it, it’s there in the headlines every day, this kind of innovation that is drawn from, as you say, different eyeballs coming from different places.
Johan Norberg: And even more, the reason why Pfizer could do it was that they cooperated with BioNTech in Germany and they were founded by and are led by two immigrants and descendants of immigrants from Turkey.
Denzil Mohammed: It always astounds me that this nation was built by immigrants, people who fled other places, who had some sort of desire to succeed and to live and to thrive that they couldn’t have done in their homeland. It’s much the same today with immigrants who are coming, that inherent entrepreneurial spirit that often leads to them starting businesses at twice the rate of the U.S. born. But one of the reasons that Americans are turned off by immigration as an issue is the chaos that they see. And you mentioned the media and demagogues earlier on blowing up certain things about immigration. And that includes the southern border, where we have these camp sites of immigrants from South America, Central America, Haiti, different places. Speak a little bit to that idea of the border actually causing that chaos vis a vis your concept of openness.
Johan Norberg: Yes. There is a reason why nativists and anti-immigration groups always try to show us vivid imagery of waves of migrants, not individuals, but it looks like chaos and just large groups, because we dislike chaos and groups approaching it triggers this tribalist mentality and it is scary to us and we want to do anything to just shut it down. So we can often see that. In Europe we’ve seen how far right groups use imagery that they find in the other side of the continent of something that looks like chaos and tells us “This is happening here,” because immediately we react with our reptilian brains. The problem of course, is that this is something that you create with borders. That’s not how people act. If people are going for employment or moving to a place where they find better options, moving into a new apartment, it’s not chaos. It’s not anything like that. If you look at this on an individual level, but when you suddenly impose a border blocking people from doing it, obviously people are bound to end up there and trying to do anything to get in if that’s the only option, if there are no legal simple official means to do that. If you did the same thing in Manhattan, just imposed a border across the whole island, obviously people would concentrate right by that border trying to get over because that’s the only way to meet with others, with friends and relatives and do business and move to a place that might be more giving more option to you in your life. And that would look like chaos as well, but that’s not what Manhattan looks like when it’s open, when you can easily cross from one end to the other.
Denzil Mohammed: Even during the pandemic foreign-born health care workers who could have moved to different states that were experiencing overcrowding of ICUs and things like that, but because of state restrictions or federal restrictions, they could not do that. And I even think of probably the most mobile workforce in the U.S., which is undocumented immigrants. It’s almost like an underground railroad to move to states where they need meatpacking workers or poultry workers or agricultural workers, fracking workers. And the idea of them being able to move to these places, to fill those gaps. We don’t even recognize that. So therefore, ultimately, how do you think individuals could adopt a more open mindset in their day-to-day lives?
Johan Norberg: Rather than looking for the science of how somebody’s different, we can override it and learn that, well, it’s the differences that can teach us something new and gives us new opportunities, but also realizing that if somebody else is a human being, it means that there are other circles of identity, personality traits, tribe that you have in common with them, yeah. They might be foreigners. They might be Norwegians, but he’s also a father. He might also be interested in history. He might be cheering for the same English team in soccer. He might be listening to electronic music. You can always find those different commonalities between yourself and other individuals. If you look hard enough, if you don’t think of people as belonging just to one group. And that, I think, is the beauty of a more open and individualistic world, to realize that we don’t just have one kind of identity. We’re made up of multitudes of allegiance.
Denzil Mohammed: No, no Johan, I think that’s too much work for the average person.
Johan Norberg: Could be.
Denzil Mohammed: Your book Open: The Story of Human Progress is available for sale. Thank you very much, Johan Norberg, for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.
Johan Norberg: Thank you so much, Denzil, this was a pleasure.
Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for today’s fascinating conversation on how immigration enriches entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems. Got comments? Know someone we should talk to? Email Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L @ jobmakerspodcast.org. Please leave us a review. I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another episode of JobMakers.
Episode 36: Jeff Farrah
Jeff Farrah, general counsel at the National Venture Capital Association, brings his unique insights into immigrant entrepreneurship, venture capital and startups to this episode of JobMakers. Listen to discover how he believes a “startup visa” could yield tremendous benefits to the United States economy.
Episode 35: Carlos Castro
El Salvador-born Carlos Castro crossed the border to the United States to chase his dream and escape the dangers of his country of origin. Once he learned English and obtained his citizenship, he founded a business that now employs more than 200 people. Tune in to learn how he’s given back and become a community leader.
Episode 34: Alex Nowrasteh [part two]
In part two of an interview with Alex Nowrasteh, the director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, he shares research on how immigrants benefit all Americans. He also discusses where anti-immigrant myths come from and how they can be countered. Listen to the episode to find the facts behind the rhetoric.
Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: In the last episode of JobMakers, we began a very enlightening conversation with the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh, their director of immigration studies, and a regular immigration commentator on Fox and other news outlets. He’s compiled a great booklet that you can download for free at cato.org or libertarianism.org, called The Most Common Arguments Against Immigration and Why They’re Wrong. Last time, Alex laid out the facts for us on immigrants and immigration in the U.S., countering many of the false narratives we’ve been fed all our lives, and our ancestors fed. Facts like: public safety has increased as immigration to the U.S. has increased; immigrants aren’t a lot for the Democratic Party; as immigration increased, so did American prosperity. This week, Alex hones in on a fact that research has consistently found: that immigrants benefit Americans. And given his many years of speaking on this topic to anti-immigrant audiences, he gives us his insight on where anti-immigrant arguments come from, as you’ll find out in this week’s JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Where does all this misinformation or disinformation come from? I spoke to Professor James Witte from George Mason University’s Institute for Immigration Research, and he made very clear that there’s something called misinformation and there’s something called disinformation. And you mentioned names like Mark Krikorian and Ann Coulter, who I would argue are possibly spreading disinformation, actively doing that. People are being fed certain messages in their minds, and if they believe certain things as facts, for instance, the crime, where does it come from? You’ve been talking to this audience for a long time.
Alex Nowrasteh: I think it comes from many different places. I think part of it is, people focus on anecdotes and they don’t focus on data. So they’ll look at the newspaper and see some horrible crime committed by somebody who is an immigrant, and they focus on that, they don’t look at the data behind it. And we do that with everything, by the way. It’s a real problem with human cognition and perception, it’s a big systemic problem. So I think that really pollutes this debate a lot, if people focus on anecdotes and on those cases. I think some of it also comes from the way that our brains are hardwired. Our ancestors grew up in caves, on the savannas of Africa and other places, and they evolved for that kind of environment where resources are fixed. There’s only so many buffalo running around that we can hunt to feed ourselves and our family. So in that kind of environment where resources are fixed, a new person coming in, or a new group, really does lead to a decrease in resources for everybody, really does make your group poor. And so you view outsiders with suspicion, you view new people with suspicion, it’s a dangerous thing. But we live in a modern world. We have free markets, we have trade, we have capitalism, we have what’s called positive sum growth. People are creators, we create things, we’re not just taking animals from the environment to eat or clothe ourselves. We’re making goods and services from raw materials and from the ingenuity of the human brain. And so what’s happened is our minds are just not evolved. Our economy has evolved faster than our minds have kept up. And as a result of that, we have a very primitive mindset where we just see new people, whether they’re from abroad or whether they’re births or whatnot, as taking away from us. And it’s a primitive mindset, it’s an incorrect mindset. And I think part of it is a lot of people who are anti-immigrant don’t actually want to tell you why, or they don’t actually know why. They just don’t like foreigners, and they look for a reason to justify why they don’t like foreigners and they go down this list. So one of the things that I’m worried about is they might say, “I don’t like immigrants because they take our jobs and lower our wages,” and I respond to that. And then they go on to the next one, “well, immigrants are going to take welfare,” and I respond to that. And they go, “well, they’re going to be criminals and terrorists,” and I go down the list, and I worry that I’m not actually responding to the real reason. They’re just giving me what they think are acceptable reasons. And so we’re doing this whole long song and dance where we’re not really responding to what the other person is saying or really thinking, and that’s just a horrible, difficult way to talk about it. I suspect that a lot of the reason why people don’t like immigrants is they just don’t like foreigners, and it’s really, really hard to say that without sounding like a xenophobe, and people don’t want to sound like xenophobes, people who don’t like immigrants. And so it makes it impossible to have this discussion. So in a way, it’s sort of like political correctness and patriotic correctness, which is the right-wing variety, makes it very difficult to have an honest conversation about immigration. But I will say, I think there’s one thing that people don’t talk about very much that I think matters a lot, and this is chaos. I think most people dislike and hate chaos, and they view our immigration system, they view what happens on the border, they view all this stuff as chaos. And if people see chaos, they become immediately turned off. They hate it and they want to clamp down on whatever that chaotic thing is. You see it with the drug war, you see it with crime, you see it with everything else. So as long as we have a chaotic border, people are going to be really upset about immigration. Even though the border has very little to do with the total immigration debate, it’s a very small feature of it, but it bleeds over on everything else. But the catch–22 is, we can’t get control of the border until we let more people in legally, but we can’t let more people in legally until people think that there’s no chaos on the border!
Denzil Mohammed: We know visa overstays, for instance, traditionally account for more unauthorized immigration in the U.S. There’s no focus on that. Legal immigration is a huge deal, people getting their green cards, being naturalized every year, entering our workforce. There’s no focus on that. But focusing on the chaos is what has engendered this kind of disposition among people. And you brought up the idea of anecdotes versus data and research. The border, individual crimes, alleged rape in Virginia high school, things like that, those are the things that people remember. They don’t remember that 13.7 percent of the U.S. population is foreign–born. They still believe in what they hear, that it’s an invasion and an infestation, it’s probably closer to 50 percent, doubting the census numbers because somehow the census may be biased. We’re up against a lot here, Alex, so I don’t envy your work at all.
Alex Nowrasteh: Oh, it’s a challenge. What’s interesting is the late economist Alberto Alesina did a bunch of surveys in Europe and the United States, and he just asked about some factual questions first. He was like, “what percentage of the population is foreign–born,” “what percentage are immigrants,” et cetera. And then he asked them what they thought about immigration policy, and one of the things he found is that people who are very opposed to immigration and immigrants just greatly exaggerate the percentage of the population that’s foreign–born. They will exaggerate by a factor of three or four. So they’ll think the immigrant population is 60 percent when it’s really like 14 percent. So people are not just wrong and misperceiving things, they are twisting their view of facts to fit that. I mean, there is no city in America where it’s 60 percent foreign–born, right? The largest is just over 40 percent in Miami. To be wrong by 50 percent upwards from that shows a level of twisting reality to fit your partisan biases to an extent that is worrying.
Denzil Mohammed: One of the difficulties in doing research on immigration, you pointed out earlier that they don’t ask your immigration status when you go to court, when you’re picked up for something. It’s difficult to show that immigration causes certain things, for instance, economic revitalization of all the metro areas since the sixties, it’s because immigrants moved in. Why is it so difficult as you as a researcher and so many others out there to parse out definitively about immigration?
Alex Nowrasteh: So part of the problem is there’s a lot of things going on. Immigrants, just to give you an example, they increase the supply side of the economy. More workers, increased supply side, because that means more things can be made. There’s more productive resources in the United States. But is that causing all the increase, or is the demand for these workers, by an inherently growing U.S. economy, causing that? And then the immigrants are just going to the demand and then they’re rising together? So it’s just really hard to parse that. It’s what economists called causal inference, which is trying to tease out what causally happens there. We can definitely find that demand plays a big role. People are coming to the U.S. because wages are high and they’re much more productive here. But after the immigrants get here, they increase productivity, they increase the wages of native-born Americans because immigrants are not just workers, they’re also consumers, they buy things. And by buying things, that’s more customers, and having more customers means that American workers who are supplying these goods and services to new customers become more productive because the prices go up for these goods and services. It’s just this miraculous new thing. What we see across economies around the world is more people means more productivity, more people making things, more people buying things. And the measure of your wealth is how many things and goods and services you have access to. It’s not the number on your bank account, it’s how many things you can get with that number in your bank account. Immigrants increase the supply of stuff dramatically, and that’s something that we just lose sight of. But the evidence is overwhelming. Even George Borjas, who is the most skeptical of immigration, of the benefits in the United States, of any economist around who is published in the [inaudible], even he admits, using the evidence in the way that he does through his sort of analysis, immigrants increase the amount of production in the United States by somewhere around one quarter to one half of a percentage point of GDP. So you’re talking between like $60 and $90 billion a year in additional stuff made by native–born Americans just by immigrants being here. Does not include at all the roughly 12 to 15 percent of GDP that immigrants produce in themselves, but they just make Americans more productive by being here.
Denzil Mohammed: So issues like economics, labor, manufacturing, but then you get into also things like housing values, even crime. We look at the preponderance of evidence and we see that there is some sort of relation, even though we can’t say directly some immigration causes X or Y. And with the crime, immigration goes up, crime goes down. Immigrants move into areas with low rent, over a generation they build up storefronts, they get safer sidewalks, they start bringing in customers to the nail salons, things like that.
Alex Nowrasteh: If you look to the places where immigrants go, you see this happening. You don’t see immigrants going to places in West Virginia or in Eastern Kentucky or other places that are suffering. And part of the reason they’re not going there is those places are doing poorly, but those places are also doing poorly because immigrants aren’t going there and they can’t make these investments in public safety or start new businesses. They’re going to cities and suburbs around the country that are growing well and making a positive contribution.
Denzil Mohammed: Immigrants go where the jobs are. I mean, that’s why suddenly immigrants are going to the Dakotas, they never went there before. They’re going to Nebraska in meatpacking plants. They’re filling incredible voids, and we saw that a lot during the pandemic in terms of things like agriculture and food supply. Immigrants are almost 50 percent of our agriculture workers. What would we have done? What position would we have been in without that massive, disproportionately large essential workforce? And in terms of agriculture and other areas, many of them are undocumented, right?
Alex Nowrasteh: Yeah. Many of them are unauthorized immigrants in a lot of these places. The most mobile immigrants in the U.S. economy that is willing to move from one area to another at the drop of a hat are usually unauthorized or unlawful immigrants in the United States. And that is something that’s really underappreciated, having this large mobile workforce is dramatically positive. And one of the interesting things, many of us had to work remotely for a while during the pandemic, a lot of white collar workers had to work remotely. And if it weren’t for the large number of H-1B visa holders, high–skilled temporary workers, many of whom worked in IT making that possible for us, it would have been much harder for a lot of mid–range and higher income people to work remotely like they were able to. So imagine the world without these hundreds of thousands of H-1B workers already working here in the United States, making IT services more available to American firms. A lot of smaller businesses probably would’ve shut down entirely. A lot of big companies would have had a lot of trouble, if not had to shut down entirely, or they would have had to outsource all these services to other countries around the world. And we didn’t have to do that nearly as much because we have such a large pool of talented workers on the H-1B visa.
Denzil Mohammed: Because we attract and hopefully retain talent. And might I just add, we are recording this podcast over Zoom, and we have a high–skilled immigrant to thank for that. You’re from Southern California. You live in DC now. You sound pretty American to me, but you have your own sort of immigration story, don’t you?
Alex Nowrasteh: Yeah. I mean, the thing is we all do as Americans. Just about a 100 percent of us have an ancestor in the last several centuries who came here from somewhere else. My paternal grandparents immigrated from Iran in the late 1940s. My father was born here in Wisconsin, so he’s this tall, dark, swarthy guy who looks Iranian, who talks with a slightly Oshkosh accent, it’s kind of hilarious. And he moved to LA to work in the film business. My mother’s family has been here, the first one in their family came in the late 1600s. But then some left, went to Canada, came back, others came from Europe, French Jews from Europe, Germans, basically a whole mess of Western European Jews and Protestants coming over at different times. And then they both grew up in the Midwest and then moved to California to work in the film industry, met out here. And then my brother and I, we’re technically I guess third generation because the stuff that we grew up in, but I don’t speak Farsi, I’ve never been to Iran. I eat the food every once in a while, but frankly I eat Italian food more, and Mexican food more, and Thai food more, and Chinese food more. So I’m really just this American mutt with a really hard to pronounce last name, and basically people view me as ethnically ambiguous, which, you know, I’m fine. I guess I am ethnically ambiguous, that’s being an American. And my labor on this issue is not a labor born of personal experience. I grew up around lots of immigrants in Southern California, that’s the norm to me, it feels great, but I don’t have a personal experience or something troubling that happened to me. It’s partly because I’m sort of a patriotic American and this is something that really makes America different, and because of my background as a social scientist because immigration is so fascinating, and because immigration is something where if we’re able to liberalize it in the United States, allow more legal immigrants to come in, it’s worth tens of trillions of dollars to our economy in the world.
Denzil Mohammed: That, plus the access to Thai food and Mexican food and Italian food and Chinese food.
Alex Nowrasteh: Oh, yeah.
Denzil Mohammed: Which we are so lucky to have in the U.S. because of immigration. We take for granted all these things that we’re afforded that people in other countries aren’t, and we have this buffet, this smorgasbord, of things to choose from every single day, because that’s what immigration gave us. So people can download The Most Common Arguments Against Immigration and Why They’re Wrong. It’s a really beautiful read, it’s very visual, nothing is complexly stated. It’s free to download, you can get it at libertarianism.org and also on the Cato Institute’s website. Any last comments about this particular project?
Alex Nowrasteh: So this project is the combination of over a decade of my work and research on this, bringing together tens of thousands of different pages of research written by other scholars and doing original research myself. So if you want to see the highlights of what I’ve learned on this topic for a long career, with only spending maybe 20 minutes of reading, this is the thing for you to get. I highly recommend it. So please check it out, download it, and if you have any questions or other follow up, send me an email. You can find my email on Cato’s website at cato.org.
Denzil Mohammed: And soon I’m going to be talking to one of your colleagues, Johan Norberg, the author of Open: The Story of Human Progress, and I think we’ll explore some of these themes further. Alex Nowrasteh, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers.
Alex Nowrasteh: Thanks a lot for having me, it was a real pleasure.
Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant contributions, issues and research produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Got comments, questions, know someone we should talk to? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for joining us for this week’s revealing discussion on how immigrants benefit all of us. Next Thursday at noon, we’ll meet one of those immigrants, Carlos Castro. His businesses in Virginia have employed hundreds of people over decades, a far cry from his humble beginnings in El Salvador, where there were no such opportunities, as you’ll learn in the next JobMakers podcast.
Episode 33: Alex Nowrasteh [part one]
As director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, Alex Nowrasteh has spent years studying the positive impact of immigrants on the United States. In the first half of a two part episode, Nowrasteh discusses how myths about immigrants have evolved and persisted throughout American history and into the present. Listen to his JobMakers episode to discover the truth behind many canards about immigration.
Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and this is JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: For time immemorial, we’ve been hearing the same messages. ‘Immigrants take this’ or ‘Immigrants increase that’ or ‘Immigrants have used this’. I say time immemorial because the same things said of immigrants today were said of immigrants a hundred years ago. No matter the group, whether Irish or Italian, Mexican or Haitian, those already living here uttered the same things. For Alex Nowrasteh, the Cato Institute’s director of immigration studies, he’s heard it all before; over and over again. So last summer, he compiled a quick and easy publication. Anyone can download it, it’s called ‘The Most Common Arguments Against Immigration and Why They’re Wrong’. You can get it at Cato’s website or libertarianism.org. In it, Alex lays out in simple terms, researched responses to anti-immigrant fabrications like ‘Today’s immigrants don’t assimilate like immigrants from before’ and ‘Immigrants are a major source of crime’ and ‘Immigrants won’t vote for the Republican party’. This is the first part of our conversation. And some of what you’re about to hear might surprise you. Alex knows that, but getting truth and facts out there is paramount in advancing sensible immigration policies that benefit all Americans, new or old, as you’ll discover in this week’s JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Alex Nowrasteh from the Cato Institute, thank you for joining us on JobMakers. How are you?
Alex Nowrasteh: Great! I’m doing well. Thanks a lot for having me! I’m looking forward to this.
Denzil Mohammed: So you recently released a report on the most common arguments against immigration and why they’re wrong. Why did you feel the need to do this?
Alex Nowrasteh: So I’ve been speaking and writing about immigration for over a decade and I basically get the same questions every time. And I figured these questions are probably the ones that everybody has about immigration. So it would just be very convenient for everybody if I wrote down my quick answers to all of them, with citations and links to other research, to give people out there who are getting these questions but don’t have the benefit of having done years and years of research on each of them like I have. So that’s what basically gave me this impetus, sort of like a cheat sheet for everybody to know what I’m thinking whenever I get these questions.
Denzil Mohammed: One of the biggest misconceptions that I found in your report was the one on voting, that immigrants are automatically going to vote blue. That is not necessarily true. California is a good example of that. California and Texas, the two states with the largest immigrant populations, right?
Alex Nowrasteh: Yeah, that’s right. California and Texas. And interestingly, part of the argument against voting or the idea that immigrants and their kids are going to vote for the democratic party in perpetuity forever is it’s partly focused on immigration, of course. It’s also focused on largely Hispanics. It’s the idea that Hispanics, whether they’re native-born or foreign-born or just this permanent blue voting bloc. And if you look back at history, if you look at what’s going on today with political realignment that’s just simply not true. There’s so much evidence to the contrary that it’s kind of overwhelming, but what we really hear is this crazy narrative about how this is some new voting bloc in Porter by the Democrats, supposedly, to create sort of Democratic Party dominance, which, I don’t know when that’s ever existed since the 1960s. And I can talk about why, I mean, the history of this is kind of fascinating. So I’m from California. And when I was young, in 1994, there was a debate, a statewide proposition that everyone gets to vote on called Proposition 187. And Prop 187 did two things. One was that it denied welfare benefits and other government benefits to all unlawful or illegal immigrants in the state. And then the second thing was it told every single state official that if they suspect that somebody is an unlawful or illegal immigrant, they have to report that person to the INS at the time for deportation. And what happened was, in 1994, this was pushed by the then governor Pete Wilson, who was Republican. He was facing a pretty hard reelection campaign in 1994 in California; the economy wasn’t doing well, the end of the cold war really hurt a lot of defense industries in California. So he was facing an uphill battle. And so he latched on to this Proposition 187 as a way to galvanize voters to support him so that he could win reelection. And what’s fascinating is you take a look at this, in 1990, when peoples and first ran, he basically split the Hispanic vote on the state level with Democrats. Basically he got 47 percent. The Democrats got 48 percent. 1990, it switches. Pete Wilson got 25 percent, Democrat got 70 percent, but Pete Wilson barely pulled it out because he got so many more votes from black Americans, white Americans and Asian Americans. But then you fast forward to 1998, and you see that Hispanic vote for Republicans keeps going down. It goes down to like 17 percent. And a state like California, where the Hispanic population grows from like 10 percent in 1970 to 40 percent around the year 2005, that’s a devastating shift. And basically what happened was the Republican Party in California in my home state decided, ‘We really needed to win this election in 1984, let’s piss off the largest demographic in the state that’s growing the fastest and be surprised when we lose basically every election after that, except when Arnold Schwarzenegger is running.’
Denzil Mohammed: So you concluded based on this, that how immigrants vote depends on how the party treats them, particularly Hispanic voters.
Alex Nowrasteh: Yeah. Surprisingly, right? No, I’m just joking. I mean, it’s obviously not surprising, human beings don’t want to vote for people who hate them. James Carville, the Democratic strategist has said this, point blank. If voters think that you hate them, they won’t vote for you.
Denzil Mohammed: You talk about assimilation, and that’s, of course, one of the biggest myths when it comes to immigration; that today’s immigrants don’t assimilate as immigrants from the past did. How are they wrong?
Alex Nowrasteh: So assimilation, we basically measure it as whether the immigrant or the immigrant’s kids or grandkids: how similar they are to Americans who’ve been here for much longer period of time on issues like education, income; civic participation, which includes voting, volunteering whether they nationalize, whether they call themselves American and consider themselves to be American. And on these measures from survey questions that go back, in some cases over a hundred years, what we see is that basically, by the third generation, that is, the grandchildren of the immigrants themselves, their grandchildren across the board, on average, are basically identical to Americans who have been here for four or longer generations in terms of all of these measures. Now, some groups take a little bit longer than others. There are a lot of Hispanic immigrant groups, because, when they come here, they have a little bit less education, it takes a little bit of a while to earn that education and pass it on to their kids. That can take three, sometimes four generations. With Asian immigrants it’s basically the first or second generation because they typically come here with higher education level. They already speak English when they arrive and that sort of jumpstarts assimilation. And then what we’ve also seen is a lot of intermarriage. So a lot of Hispanic immigrants or Asian immigrants will marry a non-Hispanic or non-Asian American. The kids will be mixed. Their kids won’t self-identify as that ethnic minority or racial minority. And because of this intermarriage, what happens is that basically pushes along assimilation. It speeds it up by an extra generation. So I like to call it ‘assimilation of the altar’. And that’s something that happened in the past; that’s what happened with Irish, with Italian immigrants, with German immigrants. Like if you notice in this conversation, a lot of what we’re seeing today is what people were noticing, a hundred or 130 years ago with the immigrant groups that were coming then. Is this happening with a whole new group of people in the United States? And it turns out it’s not that different. And in some ways, it’s a little faster. So it took on average, the Irish about five generations to assimilate by our measures. And that’s probably because the Irish, when they came here, they were especially poor, especially devastated, especially poorly educated and coming from a real backwards part of Europe at that time. They’ve caught up, Ireland’s caught up, but back then, it was really backwards by comparison to the United States. They didn’t even use money in large parts of Ireland because there was basically a feudal economy where you would pay your landlord in produce that you made from your farm. And then you get shoved into industrial aged New York. Crazy, right? Crazy transition. But if you think about today, like an immigrant from Mexico or from India or from Nigeria, they don’t have to learn how to read a clock. They don’t have to learn how to use money. They don’t have to learn how to rent an apartment. They know all these things already and they have some exposure to American culture through TV and music and everything else. So, in a sense, there’s a ton of pre-assimilation going on around the world because American culture is so dominant. The English language is just so dominant globally that it really helps jump start that process. So if I were looking backwards at time from the year 3000, I would say the assimilation trends in the United States around the year 2021 are far superior to what they were in the United States in the year 1921. I’m just that much more optimistic about it.
Denzil Mohammed: That’s fascinating. Clearly, this has happened before. This is a natural phenomenon that happens when people move and whether they came from Ireland or from Italy or from Guatemala, it’s probably going to follow the same trajectory. One of the other biggest misconceptions that you addressed is on crime. And it’s interesting to note that as populations have increased in the U.S., that’s in Metro areas, violent crime rates have gone down. Yet, we’ve seen this mushrooming of immigration to the U.S. since the late sixties. Tell me a little bit about that. And how do you counter people who come with other statistics about immigrants and crime that totally contradict yours?
Alex Nowrasteh: Yeah. So what you said is absolutely right; going back to the late 19th century, there have been about half a dozen different government commissions that have studied the issues of immigrant assimilation in the United States. And most of these commissions have been stacked against immigration. The Alibi Congress and basically nativists are put on the boards to study these things. But what’s remarkable is, every time, from the early 20th century, from the Dillingham commission, which recommended quotas to keep out Southern and Eastern Europeans because they were genetically inferior, supposedly. Up until the Barbara Jordan commission in the 1990s, that took a look at immigration, also stacked with a bunch of people who are anti-immigration on that commission. Every single one of them, they say a bunch of negative things about immigration, but they have all admitted that immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than the native-born Americans and much less likely to be incarcerated. So this is something that goes back over a century; this finding and continues to today. In fact, when you take a look at the census data, because we do have census data on crime, and we take a look at those who are incarcerated in American prisons, the foreign-born population in prison, as a percentage, is below the percentage of nationwide population. And we know that for a fact. That is uncontested. What other people say, though, is ‘I may believe, Alex, that legal immigrants have a much lower crime rate,’ but then they say ‘Illegal immigrants have a much higher crime rate, though.’ And they say that because, well, they broke immigration laws. So they must be more likely to commit crimes rather than just these immigration law violations. And Ann Coulter in her book, Adios America, which, and I say this unironically, is actually a great book because you’ll understand what an anti-immigration person thinks about all this stuff. In very clear detail. I learned more from that book, I think, than any other book on immigration, surprisingly. And what she said is, ‘Illegal immigration is a huge source of crime. And the reason why you know that is because no state counts criminal activity or convictions or arrests by immigration status.’ And she has this funny line in her book where she says, ‘Nielsen American census bureau people know how many pigs are being raised on American farms, but you’re telling me they don’t know how many criminals were arrested or illegal immigrants? Of course they’re hiding it!’ And
she says they’re hiding it to cover up some great things.
Denzil Mohammed: That is very scientific, by the way.
Alex Nowrasteh: Oh yeah. Very scientific criticism. It’s just this nativist paranoia. But what’s fascinating is, she’s right about 49 states. 49 states do not count crime or convictions or arrests by immigration status, but one state dots. And that’s the state of
Texas, which is the best state to measure for this. It’s a border state. It has one of the greatest numbers of immigrants in the country. The second greatest number of immigrants in the country are in Texas. The second largest unlawful or illegal immigrant population is in Texas and a lot of them are Hispanic, which, when people talk about crime and immigration, they’re mainly talking about Hispanic immigrants. They’re not really complaining about Asian immigrants. They’re complaining about Hispanic immigrants. And, even better, Texas has been governed by Republicans for about 27 years nonstop. So there’s no argument you can make about some kind of liberal conspiracy to cover up illegal immigrant crime, right? They’ll want to report it. And what does it show? You take a look at the Texas state data on this. You take a look at criminal convictions committed by people by immigration status. You’ll find that illegal immigrants have a criminal conviction rate about 37 percent below that of native-born Americans and legal immigrants have one that’s 57 percent below native-born Americans. And that’s as a percentage of each subpopulation. So just to give you an example, the native-born American criminal conviction rate, 2019 was 1,190 convictions for every 100,000 native-born Americans. For illegal immigrants, it was 749 convictions for illegal immigrants for every 100,000 and for legal immigrants who was 510 for every 100,000. So it’s just clear as daylight that these numbers line up in an incredible way. And when you take a look at different crimes like homicide, when you take a look at sex crimes, when you take a look at larceny, when you take a look at all these crimes, you go down the list and about the same relationship holds. Legal immigrants and illegal immigrants are much less likely to commit homicides and be convicted of them or arrested for them. Well, larceny it’s the same thing. Sex crimes is the same thing. So this is just across the board. We take a look at this and this is what holds and people spend a lot of time arguing about why this is the case, but we’ve come to the point now where people don’t really dispute that this is the case, that legal immigrants and illegal immigrants have a much lower crime rate. This has been a sea change in opinion the last couple of years, but I finally convinced people, even Mark Krikorian, I even convinced him. He has this great quote in the Dallas Morning News where somebody asked him about my paper. And he said, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a lot of evidence that illegal immigrants have a much lower crime rate than native-born Americans.’ The only response they have is, ‘Well, one is too many.’ And if you want to talk about how to allocate scarce law enforcement resources to diminish crime, knowing which populations, by immigration status, are the most dangerous, is worth knowing. Because we only have so many police officers, so many resources to develop the best. And if you really want to make an impact on crime, you should police more the native born population; which, I’m sorry to say, us native born Americans are super crime prone and super more likely to kill each other, than you should police illegal immigrants or legal immigrants.
Denzil Mohammed: That is such a powerful point. It better resonates because this is what the data has consistently shown. And to remind listeners that, for instance, authorized immigrants; people who are hoping for their green cards, for instance, they walk a very, very tight rope when it comes to committing crimes. They can be instantly deported if they commit certain kinds of crimes. So they have additional evidence to stay on the side of public safety versus U.S. boards who don’t have that kind of risk.
Alex Nowrasteh: Yeah, that’s right. Gary Becker, who’s a late Nobel Prize winning economist. He studied the economics of crime and he said, ’If you want to understand the turrets for crime, you need to multiply the chance of being caught times the punishment. And that will basically be the deterrence.’ And the thing is, for any crime, any immigrant, whether unlawful or legal, who is not a citizen of the United States, the punishment of being caught for committing community crime is much greater because the punishment is they get to serve their prison sentence, and then they get deported. And being deported is not technically a crime under U.S. law, but from the perspective of the immigrant, it is oftentimes a much bigger punishment than being in prison. And as a result of that, the deterrence factor is enormous. And as a result of that, people who decide to become immigrants are just going to be those types of people who just don’t really want to commit crimes because they’re thinking ahead. And the one thing we know about criminals is they don’t really think ahead. And immigrants, one of the things we do know is they’re doing it for the future, for themselves and they really think ahead.
Denzil Mohammed: They do it for the future. They want to establish a better life for themselves and their kids. Putting that in jeopardy, they don’t want to do that. That’s not in the equation. And thinking long-term that’s a fascinating way to position immigrants. And that’s really very true.
Alex Nowrasteh: It’s like an investment. It’s like an investment that they make in themselves and in the United States, as a result. The median immigrant who comes here to the United States from a country around the world can expect a four fold increase in income, adjusting for cost of living. That is tremendous. I’ve never had a job where one job to the next is a fourfold increase. I just can’t imagine. And a fourfold increase for somebody from Latin America or from Africa or from Asia. That’s a lot bigger difference in terms of the standard of living than a four fold increase for me would be. Like you increase my income by a factor of four, I’ll buy another house or something like that. I’ll fly first class. That’s nice, right? But it’s not going to be the difference between me sending my kids to school or not. It’s not the difference between seeing a doctor when I’m sick and not. It’s not the difference between me being able to retire at some point and not. That’s what these people face. So it is tremendous investment in themselves. And as a result, they invest in the United States! And it’s better for all of us.
Denzil Mohammed: Better for all of us. they want better paying jobs, they want to climb the ladder, they want to make more money. They pay more in taxes as a result. Immigrants or refugees give back more than the benefits that they initially received.
JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant contributions, history topics and research produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for today’s gripping discussion on the facts to combat all those anti-immigrant messages. If you have feedback or know someone we should talk to, email Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L (at) jobmakerspodcast.org. We’re going to be off for Thanksgiving but back on December 2nd, when Alex Nowrasteh discusses undocumented immigrants, anti-immigration research and Ann Coulter in the next Jobmakers.
Episode 32: Larry Kim
Larry Kim’s parents fled from Korea to Canada following the Korean War, and he followed in their footsteps by moving to the United States. Kim considers starting multiple highly successful marketing tech companies to be a “means to an end.” His true passion is helping people pursue their own American Dream. Learn how he accomplishes this by employing hundreds of people and mentoring entrepreneurs around the world in this episode of JobMakers!
Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and this is JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: A one way ticket. That’s migrating. What you do when you get there is up to you because you’ve left your family and other supports behind. That’s an immigrant. For Larry Kim, founder of WordStream in Boston, which was acquired for $150 million, and of MobileMonkey, a chatbot marketing platform for market and customer support on Facebook messenger, web chat and SMS, that journey began when his parents fled to Canada after the Korean war on a one way ticket. That, in turn, gave him the opportunity to purchase his own one way ticket to the U.S. to fulfill his American dream. Larry is creating hundreds of meaningful jobs for Americans. Something he’s not only proud of but feels is at the core of his values, to give back to the country that gave him the opportunity to actualize bold new ideas. He doesn’t even believe in patents, instead publishing textbooks on software development to foster the freedom for everyone to innovate. Through his technology, he’s helped tens of thousands of companies to grow their businesses. And with nearly 750,000 followers on medium.com, he mentors budding entrepreneurs from around the world as you’ll discover in this week’s JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Larry Kim, thank you for joining us on JobMakers. How are you?
Larry Kim: I’m doing great Denzil. How are you?
Denzil Mohammed: I am excellent and I’m so glad we got to talk to you. You’re such a tremendous business owner and entrepreneur. A social media maverick. I remember back in 2019 when I met you, you were like two spots behind Hillary Clinton on the top writers on medium.com. Remember that?
Larry Kim: Oh yeah, she hasn’t been blogging for a while, so I’ve actually passed her.
Denzil Mohammed: [laughing] There you go! So we met in 2019 at the eighth annual Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards, where you were awarded the winner in the “High-Tech Business” category by The Immigrant Learning Center, and you said, “This is the most meaningful honor of my entire professional career.” What did you mean by that?
Larry Kim: Oh, sure. So, Denzil, when you’re an entrepreneur, or just any careerist, you’re going to get all sorts of crazy awards. Some of them are pretty superficial, like, “Having Lots of People to Follow on Social Media,” or these kinds of silliness. Or growth awards, like “Inc 5,000 Fastest Growing Companies in America.” Of course, it’s great to get any of these awards, but it’s important to understand that, well, my perspective on this is that the growth or the number of followers or whatever these other awards are based on, that’s a means to an end. That the true goal here is to create something of value and just ultimately create jobs and employment for people in the community so that they can better their lives and contribute back as productive members of society. So, to that end, I kind of view your industry or your entrepreneurship award as being the only award I’ve ever won that reflects my core belief system. And so that’s why I declared that this was the most meaningful award that I’ve ever been considered for and won in my career. It’s an honor and a privilege.
Denzil Mohammed: When you say your core beliefs, what did that award get at for you? What did it speak to?
Larry Kim: Why is it that entrepreneurs do what they do? You know? Why is it that so many of them are immigrants? And I think part of that is a life calling to provide. To help people to realize their full potential in life, by providing them a framework to be gaining valuable skills, get paid for it and advance to careers. And that is my calling in life. And just the structure by which I do this is by creating these products and companies and selling products. But that is a means to an end. That is what you see. But not the core motivating factor for me.
Denzil Mohammed: Creating meaningful work, allowing people to advance in their careers, certainly…
Larry Kim: More for families. Live the “American Dream.” I’ve employed over a thousand people in the last decade. And we don’t just hire people who already had jobs and they were already flying high. No, we look for these people like one or two years out of college, or in some cases, community college, or no college at all. And we train them how to sell things. We train them how to be a customer support rep. We take people from companies like Best Buy, floor salespeople, really blue-collar work. And I think we’re helping people refine their skills and become even more productive members of society.
Denzil Mohammed: Well said. Allowing people to live out their American Dream. I want to get into your immigrant story. And it didn’t just start with you, right? It started with your family.
Larry Kim: Oh, sure. Yes. So about 20 years ago, I immigrated to the United States from the far, far away country of Canada. It was a 45-minute flight from the Toronto airport. It was a one-way ticket, and I flew here following my last exam from college and started at a local startup here. And you know, you might say, “Well, that’s not a … Canada is like the 51st state,” or “This is not really a big journey.” But you’ve got to … if you take a step back, you think of the bigger picture. My parents started this journey back 40-50 years ago. They were just young children during the Korean War in the fifties. And they were refugees, walking hundreds of miles to avoid these conflict zones and carrying everything that they owned in a bag on their back and eating grass and drinking out of rivers to survive. And it was a pretty difficult environment and when they got a little older, they decided to immigrate to Canada. This would have been in the sixties or seventies. And they also booked a one-way ticket here with like 20 dollars in their pocket or something like that. So it’s just a continuation of that desire to want to provide something for your life, for your family, for your community. And you know, this was just sort of the last stop if you will.
Denzil Mohammed: That’s just absolutely fascinating. So many Americans don’t know about these experiences that are in the backgrounds of immigrants today and refugees today. I’m glad that they made that move. It allowed you to be able to thrive and do better than they ever possibly imagined you would have if for instance, you were growing up in a war-torn country. Your journey as an entrepreneur, did you always know that you wanted to start a business? And, and just correct me if I’m wrong, your degree is in electrical engineering, right? And now you’re in digital marketing.
Larry Kim: So, absolutely. It was obvious that I wanted to create a business from the very beginning. My early jobs were doing paperwork and building little recycling businesses in junior high and in high school. And you know, it was a situation where I knew I wanted to … oh, and my parents! My mother was an entrepreneur too. She was a piano teacher. So, she basically taught me everything about marketing. How to get clients, how to get students. “Don’t be the lowest cost piano teacher because then you’re going to get all the worst students. You have to charge a little bit more than everyone else.” She would teach me all of these lessons about how to run a business. That’s another thing about entrepreneurship. There’s usually some family influence, from a young age, where someone is teaching you the difference between being an employee versus an employer. But yes, I think I absolutely wanted to be this … you know, having a company or a business. It was just a situation where I didn’t have the skills or the idea of what to do … like finding that niche, finding the need in the marketplace to fill. And so, you just start off in a regular job and you learn skills. So, initially when I moved to Cambridge, it was to work for a marketing software company called Allaire which was later bought up by Macromedia. And because that was marketing software, I learned a lot about digital marketing. And so that’s where I was able to then identify some needs in the marketplace around search advertising and social media advertising in terms of products that you could build, in terms of being an engineer, an entrepreneur. I think that’s totally normal. Engineering of course is an applied science as opposed to a pure scientific endeavor. And so, you always have to take your engineering skills and apply it to some other area. Biotech or fintech or marketing software.
Denzil Mohammed: So, what was it like in the early stages going out there, asking for money, developing your ideas, finding partners?
Larry Kim: I mean, it’s kind of comical. I was like this 20-something with a lot of ideas and no contacts, not a lot of experience. And I just did cold emailing. If you go to a venture website it’ll say, “Do you want to partner with …”, there’s actually an alias on inquiries at “venture-company-dot-com.” So, that’s not the most ideal way to go about pitching. Ideally, you’d get some kind of recommendation or warm introduction from a portfolio CEO or something like that. But yeah! Just the cold emailing. And sure enough, surprisingly, we got a few dozen inquiries and that led to meetings. And you know, it didn’t happen overnight. But over a few years of getting rejected and trying again, I was able to both build a business that was fundable and find world-class investors to back the idea.
Denzil Mohammed: So, describe MobileMonkey to us. What is it, what does it do? Why is it important?
Larry Kim: It’s a text messaging platform. It’s a very important mode of communication if you’re a business doing business-to-consumer marketing. So, if you’re a realtor, you’re selling to customers. These customers aren’t spending all day in Gmail or whatever. They’re just on-the-go on their mobile phones. And typically, they spend a good amount of time texting or using text platforms like WhatsApp or Instagram Direct Messaging or Facebook Messenger. And so, if you’re a business it’s kind of hard to generate inbound inquiries at scale and then to those inquiries automatically. What we do is simplify this by providing this omni-chat platform that lets you manage all of the different messaging channels that you might encounter customers. All of the social channels, SMS texting, website chat, all in a single unified console and makes it super easy to engage with users at scale and provide better customer experiences leading to more sales and more leads, and then just growing your business.
Denzil Mohammed: I’ve seen in other countries, entire economies run on WhatsApp. It’s really fascinating. On Medium you have over 200,000 followers. On Twitter, you have three quarters of a million followers. That’s a gigantic mouthpiece to speak, not just to Boston or to the United States, but to the world. What’s some of the best advice you have for budding entrepreneurs and probably some of the worst advice, so to speak, to avoid?
Larry Kim: Well, the worst advice is going to be the opposite of the best advice so I’ll just tell you what my best advice would be, and that is to really understand that initially the enormous leverage comes from the idea. What is the solution that you are trying to provide? Who is the target market? How will we find them? Like that kind of confluence of questions. You can build anything you want, and you can sell it to anyone you want to, and you can come up with any number of ways to take that product to market. But how well those concepts click together is going to provide enormous leverage on how big a business this could be, how fast this business can grow, whether or not it will even get off the ground in the first place. And so, I think what happens is that a lot of entrepreneurs, especially first-time entrepreneurs, they tend to overestimate the novelty of their own ideas. Sure enough, you’ve come up with a great idea, but four other companies are doing the same thing. And then the second thing that they do is they downplay the competitiveness of these other products and up-play the uniqueness of their concept, if that makes sense. While it’s in kind of the “stem cell phase” of a business, where you have a lot of freedom to decide what to bill, who to sell it to and how to sell it, getting to a really great place before scaling is the best advice.
Denzil Mohammed: So finally, given your amazing social media reach, we know that people who have their own businesses want to be able to build up. Build up their brand, their personal brand, their company’s brand, engage with customers. On social media what are some of the best advice you have for entrepreneurs?
Larry Kim: So, the advice changes over time, because it’s so dependent on how the algorithm is tuned. It seems to me that it’s pretty obvious that the algorithm is just trying to create food fights in the newsfeed. If the content that you’re producing is like family photos or like, “Hey, buy my product,” it’s not, it’s going to be cloaked. It’s not going to really generate a lot of response or not a lot of people are going to actually see that. It just means that in 2021, you need to be a little bit more controversial unfortunately. If you’re just putting up content out there, that’s very centrist, like a “water is wet” kind of thing, it’s just not going to go anywhere. So, you really need to think about the issues that divide the community and you need to straddle that line. In terms of just a stupid example, say you’re a fitness company and you’ve got people who swear by Keto diet or Atkins diet or something. But there’s a lot of strongly held convictions depending on what diet they ascribed to. Instead of just creating “What is keto?” you would create something like “10 Reasons Why Keto is a Load of Crap!” What that’s going to do is get all the other fad folks up in arms and commenting and sharing and saying, “This is a load of crap!” and hitting the mad face emoji. Which apparently is weighted five times more than the like button. That came out of the documents on Capitol Hill. So that’s really the way to go viral and get everyone … it’s kind of stirring the pot a little bit, and that’s sad. It’s kind of sad, but that’s how I would give the algorithm what it’s looking for. The hot button topics that exist in every industry. Try to provoke a response.
Denzil Mohammed: Yeah, it’s not a fistfight necessarily that you’re getting into, but something to generate responses by way of putting information out there. The last thing I wanted to bring up was I interviewed Semyon Dukach on this podcast a while ago. He is part of a group called One Way Ventures and you talk about your parents buying a one way ticket.
Larry Kim: I bought a one-way ticket here.
Denzil Mohammed: You bought a one way ticket. What is the significance of that one-way ticket?
Larry Kim: This is not a tourist trip. You know, this is … we’re not planning a one month stay or something like that. We’re going all in. There is no plan B. This has to work. And you know, that’s the mentality of an entrepreneur. It’s also the mentality of an immigrant. If you look at all the companies that are investible, there’s a very high chance that one of the founders is an immigrant because that’s the DNA of the immigrant. It’s essentially the same as an entrepreneur/founder type person.
Denzil Mohammed: I often say that the act of migrating is itself an entrepreneurial act and you just spelled it out in tremendously personal and beautiful terms. Larry Kim, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers and for participating in this discussion and I wish you all the best with you and your family and Mobile Monkey.
Larry Kim: Oh thanks Denzil, it’s great to be here, have a great day.
Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s fascinating story on how immigrants benefit and create jobs for all Americans. Have a comment? Email Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L at jobmakerspodcast.org. Next week we speak with Alex Nowrasteh, Director of Immigration Studies at the Cato Institute about his recent publication, “The Most Common Arguments Against Immigration and Why They’re Wrong.” I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another episode of JobMakers.
Episode 31: Gary Christenson
Mayor of Malden Gary Christenson has seen firsthand how immigrants have revitalized his city, starting businesses and creating jobs. Christenson has also seen how Malden came together in the aftermath of hate crimes following the Boston Marathon bombing. Tune in to learn how he wants to strengthen relationships between newcomers and longtime residents, and his perspective on sanctuary city policies.
Denzil Mohammed: I am Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Malden, Massachusetts, the second most diverse city in the Commonwealth after Chelsea, with almost 43 percent of its residents born outside of the United States. It’s also home to The Immigrant Learning Center, the co-producer of this podcast. So a good location for a free English language program! Malden’s always been a gateway city for immigrants and refugees, from Jews fleeing for safety after World War II, to Eastern Europeans and Vietnamese seeking democracy and freedom, to immigrants from China, Morocco, Brazil and Haiti seeking the American dream today. For Mayor Gary Christenson, it is this diversity that gives Malden its strength and assures him of a strong, proud future. He looks to the revitalization of downtown, with its disproportionate number of immigrant-owned businesses, the dizzying array of cuisines on offer and the very entrepreneurial spirit that suffuses its immigrant populations. He talks with us about managing the relationships between long-term residents and new immigrants, the reaction of the city to hate crimes after the Boston Marathon bombing, how much immigrants have given back to their new home and his stance on sanctuary cities in this week’s JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Mayor Gary Christenson, welcome to the JobMakers podcast!
Mayor Gary Christenson: Thank you so much for having me, always an honor.
Denzil Mohammed: So what is it like running the second most diverse city in the Commonwealth?
Mayor Gary Christenson: It probably is the greatest aspect of serving as mayor, because I have learned things that I know that I never otherwise would, if not for living in one of the most diverse cities in the state of Massachusetts. For example, I met with a community group a couple of years ago, and when they told me the name of the country, I didn’t even know it existed. I actually had to go to a map to look it up, it was Eritrea. And again, if not for them being here and being part of this diverse city that we live in, I might have never known that. And so to me, that’s one of the greatest benefits of living here in Malden.
Denzil Mohammed: And you’re a lifelong Malden resident. How have you seen immigration shape this city? And in what ways? As far as I can tell, Malden has always been a gateway city for different refugee and immigrant groups, right?
Mayor Gary Christenson: Yeah. I guess how hasn’t it shaped our city? From religion, to culture, to my favorite, which is food, it’s had a profound impact on who we are and where we are going. And I can’t tell you the number of people who end up coming here now mention the diversity as one of the attractions on why they come to our city.
Denzil Mohammed: So you think that this diversity is a strength of ours?
Mayor Gary Christenson: We tout it every chance we get. And you know, we try not to just talk the talk. We’re now trying to take what has been happening to our city and have it permeate throughout everything we do in Malden. So for example, we now have our first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, just a couple of offices down from me. Her name is Bybiose Larochelle, and she now is working very hard to have the government reflect what Malden has become, which is again, one of the most diverse cities in our state. She sits on every hiring committee. She’s involved with helping to promote the vaccine to underserved populations in our city. And we want to make sure that Malden is not just known as the most diverse, but actually practices and preaches on making sure that our community is welcoming and safe for us all.
Denzil Mohammed: So we know from our own research, and you would know as the person who runs this city, that immigrants are inherently entrepreneurial. Just the idea of packing a suitcase and leaving their family and friends, and their culture, and their food behind is itself an entrepreneurial act. How has that entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants in Malden shaped the local economy?
Mayor Gary Christenson: Just the other day, we cut the ribbon to the new Maplewood Meat Market over in Maplewood Square. And the owners, one was from Peru and the other one was from Mexico, I believe. And they are not only the owners, but they’re serving the goods that are native to their original countries. And again, that would not be the case, if not for them wanting to set up their business here in our city. So we went down there to not only congratulate them on this risk, because that’s what it is when you’re opening a new business, but thank them as well for sharing what they have experienced and learned growing up with our community. So that’s just one example of many that we work with on a daily basis here in Malden.
Denzil Mohammed: I remember talking to Shane Smith on this podcast, who runs Hugh O’Neill’s Irish Pub. And, you know, he mentioned when he first opened that downtown Malden wasn’t the vibrant hub that it is now, with pubs and restaurants and cafés and stores. Particularly looking at the downtown area, how have immigrants played a role in revitalizing downtown Malden over the years?
Mayor Gary Christenson: Well, I would encourage your listeners to come see it, to experience it firsthand. But they have single-handedly brought our city back, and there were times when people weren’t sure about whether that would ever be possible again, but they have done it. Just go up one side and down the other, and you’ll see. Just this afternoon, I’m going to go over to The Gallery at 57 Pleasant Street, which consists of a number of immigrant artists who are going to be celebrating the second anniversary of that store opening. And again, that would not have happened without their willingness to get involved and help us bring back Malden Square from where it once was.
Denzil Mohammed: And I just can’t help but think of the sheer diversity. You talk about someone from Peru, Mexico, Eritrea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Haiti, just so much rich diversity here. And we take it for granted that, just in America, we have all this great diversity of food, for instance. You know, America’s favorite fast food chain is Taco Bell. We have immigrants to thank for the fact that we can choose on a Friday night, Thai food or Scottish food or Irish food or Chinese food.
Mayor Gary Christenson: Right, well, I can tell you the difference here. A number of our students who graduate Malden High School and go off into the big world, always come back and tell us that one of the advantages of attending school in our city is that when they get out, they’ve experienced it all, whereas students that they are meeting for the first time, it takes them several years to adjust and adapt to experiencing new cultures, new religions, new foods. But not students that come from our city. So to me, that’s one of the great things about Malden.
Denzil Mohammed: You mentioned students, and I want to get back to that in a second, but what has Malden done over the years? How has your relationship with immigrant business owners in particular evolved? What have you done right that other cities have not done right when it comes to really fostering that entrepreneurial spirit?
Mayor Gary Christenson: As I mentioned, our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer now, Bybiose Larochelle, has been working with the different community groups throughout Malden to take us to that next level. Because we’ve known now for some time that we are diverse and we appreciate it and enjoy it, but now it’s time to take it to where it should go, which is to be in a place that everybody can participate in. So I would say that is where we’re going next, which is having people working in the government that reflect our community, having documents and meetings translated so people could participate and eventually run for political office.
Denzil Mohammed: So you mentioned students a little while ago. Part of your progress in Malden has been the creation of 1,500 jobs for Malden’s teens, exposing them to the job interview process, giving them work experience, arming them with career readiness. Given that 57 percent of Malden High School students don’t count English as their first language, how do you see reaching such a diverse group of students? How have they been able to engage with these opportunities?
Mayor Gary Christenson: We go to them, we reach out to them, we roll out the red carpet for them. We make it a point to find those students who otherwise would not get involved and take that step. We try to find people that we’ve never met and we have no connection with, because it’s opportunities like the Summer Youth Employment Program that could help determine who that next teacher is, who that next police officer is, who that next entrepreneur is.
Denzil Mohammed: One of the most beautiful things to see in Malden is when the bell rings and the high school students come streaming out, all the elementary school students. And they’re from every different color, every different stripe, every different background, but they’re all friends, they all get along. They may wear a hijab or something else, but they all get along, and it’s almost like this lesson in immigrant integration and inclusion and belonging. Has it been challenging over the years? You talk about all this community outreach and meeting people where they’re at. Has it been a learning experience for you?
Mayor Gary Christenson: It certainly hasn’t been a challenge. It’s been something that I have been proud and honored to be a part of. My family said growing up that the whole point of why we’re here is to learn, share and grow. That’s the whole point of it, to make it better for the next group of residents behind us, for them to be living in a place that’s greater than we found it. And so I’ve been able to do that by living here in Malden. I’ve seen, I’ve heard, I’ve learned things. It actually has helped me to rarely need a vacation, because I feel like here in Malden, I’m on vacation all the time.
Denzil Mohammed: I’m not sure you want to say that before your next campaign.
Mayor Gary Christenson: [laughs]
Denzil Mohammed: It’s almost ironic and tragic that you say the lesson was to make it easier for the people who come after you, because so often the groups that have settled here dislike the groups that come after them, we’ve seen that, it’s a cycle in U.S. history. Who does America belong to? I would venture to suggest it belongs to anyone who believes in the American dream, who [inaudible] that freedom and opportunity. What do you think sets Malden apart when it comes to embracing its newest foreign-born residents and ensuring that they thrive?
Mayor Gary Christenson: I would say it’s just a willingness to work with everyone to make our community the best it can be. We try here to take every call, every email, no matter what your stature is in life. There was a time when it was who you knew and what they knew, but we’ve tried hard over the years to let that not be the case here. So I believe we truly have an open door policy. I’ll give you an example. We had someone reach out to us from Morocco the other day. I don’t even know how she got my text number, but she got my cell number, she texted me. I couldn’t remember who she was or where I met her, but we had her in within 24 hours, sitting in the mayor’s office, trying to help address her issue, which is serious, but we think we might have some solutions for her. The point I’m trying to make is that was something we could have said, you know, schedule it a month out, find out who she is, all that stuff. But we try not to do that here. We had her here in 24 hours.
Denzil Mohammed: So it hasn’t been an entirely rosy experience here in Malden. I think there have been some tensions with longtime residents and newer residents, and things can get very heated when it comes to national or local tragedies. We did have an incident soon after the Boston Marathon bombing where a Syrian woman was punched by a resident of Malden in front of her toddler, taking her child to daycare. But the city’s response was pretty remarkable, right?
Mayor Gary Christenson: Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder, but our instant reaction was to swarm her, to be with her, to let her know that that is not something we’re known for or tolerate. And the thing I’ll remember most about that is the number of people who came to her defense and to reassure her that that was an anomaly. And I think as a result, we were able to survive that together. We are a community for all. I mean, just look at the latest census tract that just came out. When you look at the map of Malden, it’s pretty evenly distributed across the five square miles. So as opposed to another city who might have a segment or a population in this corner, and then the rest of the city is another population, here in Malden, you wouldn’t know where you are at any given time in any part of the city.
Denzil Mohammed: Over the years, how has Malden sort of managed these tensions or this relationship of the longer-term residents versus the newer ones?
Mayor Gary Christenson: I would say it’s creating an atmosphere where people are welcomed and respected, no matter what generation they’re from. So we observe and celebrate different holidays, we observe and celebrate different religious traditions, we eat different foods. And I think that’s how we’ve tried to do it here in the government. So I guess in other words, lead by example. If you notice on our social media channels, we’re always trying to promote a different culture, a different religion, a different food. And I think when people see the leaders of the city doing that, I think over time people tend to accept it. When they see their elected officials, managers, department heads, police chiefs, fire chiefs, I think that’s how we’ve been able to do it. Because again, we want to demonstrate that no matter where you are or where you’re from, you’re just as part of Malden as anybody else.
Denzil Mohammed: One thing that you did over the last federal administration, there were a lot of movements across the country where cities were insisting that they be more welcoming and that they take a sort of stand when it came to protecting their immigrant populations. And as we know, about 20 percent of the immigrant population in Massachusetts has no legal status, they’re undocumented. Malden was one of the cities that did not proclaim that it was a sanctuary city. And the reason coming from you and your administration was that it’s already a welcoming and protective place. Can you expand a little bit on why you took that decision not to make Malden a sanctuary city?
Mayor Gary Christenson: I mean, that was the flavor of the day to become a sanctuary city, but in actuality, what did it really mean besides the potential for protracted legal battles and the potential loss of aid? At that time, we didn’t know whether that would mean that some of the grants that we were relying on to help people who were in need of it the most would be at risk. So that was why at the time we didn’t feel the need to sign on to becoming a sanctuary city, which I think over time then changed to something else. I think for us, and I believe the other branches of government, they felt the same way, that we were long past having to label ourselves as something other than what we have always been, which is a place that everybody can live, work, worship.
Denzil Mohammed: You and I have seen immigrants contribute to this city as business owners, as workers, through cultural events, building it up and enriching it every day. There is a huge narrative out there about immigrants as takers, refugees as takers. What is your view on that? How have you seen immigrants give back and have they given back over time more than you’ve given them, or the government has given them?
Mayor Gary Christenson: I haven’t seen takers. I’ve seen people, like you outlined Denzil at the beginning, that just want a chance, an opportunity to live out their dreams. And so I’ve seen that as we’ve gone around to the different businesses, as I’ve talked with students in the different schools that we have here, and even in the houses of worship, when I go through there, that people are just looking for an opportunity to achieve their lifelong dream.
Denzil Mohammed: That’s a very powerful way to end this. Mayor Christenson, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers. This was really a fascinating discussion and I hope other municipalities listen to this and be guided accordingly as to how, as you say, you can help people fulfill their dreams and you can see how much they can give back.
Mayor Gary Christenson: That’s it. That’s what it’s all about. And thank you, Denzil, to The Immigrant Learning Center. I am certain we would not be having this conversation if not for all the work that you have done over the years. So thank you.
Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for today’s fascinating story on the benefits of welcoming immigrants and refugees to the U.S. If you have feedback or know someone we should talk to, email email@example.com. I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another episode of JobMakers.
Episode 30: John Dearie
As the founder and president of the Center for American Entrepreneurship, John Dearie knows how immigrant entrepreneurs create jobs, drive innovation and expand the economy. Dearie believes that the United State’s current approach to immigration is needlessly partisan and toxic. Tune in to learn how he thinks a more balanced approach will benefit both U.S.-born and foreign-born people.
Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and this is JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: The United States was and continues to be built by entrepreneurial immigrants who had the drive and determination to pick up, leave everything they know behind and to build a new life in a new homeland. So it is no surprise that they are twice as likely to take another risk: start a business. For John Dearie, founder and president of the Center for American Entrepreneurship, a Washington DC-based research policy and advocacy organization, immigration is core to his mission to build a policy environment that promotes entrepreneurship because he knows this fact all too well. He’s also seen across the country frustration among business owners at an immigration system that works against this country’s interest. Why? Because it doesn’t seek to actively attract or retain talent from the rest of the world. John sees the decline in U.S. entrepreneurship and believes that more immigration, not less, would power the nation’s economy and innovation, which have made us the global leader. Instead, he’s seeing an unnecessarily partisan and toxic approach to immigration that he says harms us all and is inherently un-American. As you’ll discover in this week’s JobMakers. John Dearie from the Center for American Entrepreneurship. How are you?
John Dearie: I’m great! Thanks so much for reaching out and inviting me to participate.
Denzil Mohammed: So tell me a little bit about the center and the kind of work that you’ve been doing. Why did you found this in the first place?
John Dearie: So, I spent the vast majority of my career in banking and financial policy. I started my career at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. I was there for a decade and then spent 17 years at an organization called the Financial Services Forum, which was a financial and economic policy group. I was the policy director there from 2001 to 2017. So I was there before, during and after the financial crisis. But as we came out of the financial crisis, even as the economy started to grow again, the Great Recession ended in the spring of 2009. So, by the spring of 2011, the recovery had been underway for two years. But the economy was growing very, very slowly and unemployment was still north of nine percent. And there was a tremendous amount of frustration that you could feel in Washington. They had really thrown the kitchen sink at the problem policy-wise, but we just were not getting the kind of traction in terms of economic growth and job creation that everybody had been hoping for. And you could sort of feel a collective shrug in Washington by policy makers. Like, we don’t know what else to do. And so I went to the CEOs and said, ‘We need to do something new and innovative to come up with some new ideas to share with policy makers; how do we accelerate economic growth and job creation?’, followed my nose through the research and eventually found my way to some research that was new at the time, but was mounting and being repeated. And there was a lot of excitement about this showing the following three things: one, that new businesses (not existing small businesses but new businesses, startups) are disproportionately responsible for the innovations that drive economic growth and job creation in the economy, so they’re incredibly important from the standpoint of economic growth. Also incredibly important from the standpoint of job creation, the two things that I was after. And, this was the really fascinating part, that new business formation, which is to say entrepreneurship in the United States, had been in decline for four decades. And I, and another colleague at the forum decided to do something quite simple and profound. We decided to hit the road, travel the country and conduct round tables with entrepreneurs all over the United States to get to the bottom of what was in entrepreneur’s way. And that’s essentially what we asked them: What’s in your way? It was by way of around table in Boston that I think I met you and I met our mutual friend Bettina Hein, who’s now on the board of CAE. And they told us. We collected extraordinary insights and data by way of that experience. We conducted round tables in 12 states around the country. Nobody in Washington knew this. I knew that because I was from Washington and I’d never heard it before. Entrepreneurship was utterly not on the radar screen in Washington as recently as 2017. And I decided that we need an organization in order to change that. We need a group on the ground doing the day-to-day blocking and tackling of engagement and education and working with policy makers on that pro-entrepreneurship agenda. And so I decided to leave the forum and become an entrepreneur myself. My colleague Katie and l like to refer to ourselves as policypreneurs. And we started the Center for American Entrepreneurship in July of 2017. Entrepreneurship is a very American idea. It’s not a Democrat or Republican idea. And the role of immigrants in American entrepreneurship, the importance of immigrants and the history of immigrants as great American entrepreneurs is a major part of what we focus on.
Denzil Mohammed: You talk about this being a very American thing. And we know this from our history. Levi’s and Budweiser, and of course [inaudible], and up until the present, Google and LinkedIn and eBay. Where exactly does immigration fit into your policy agenda? I know for instance, that during the Great Recession that you mentioned, the financial crisis, very markedly, entrepreneurship among the U.S. born dropped by almost 50 percent, and yet, it increased among the foreign-born. What does that say to you, or how does that fit into your policy agenda?
John Dearie: Well, it fits into our policy agenda in two ways, both from the standpoint of entrepreneurs themselves because immigrants are entrepreneurial by nature. And when you say that, people squint up their faces, like, ‘How do you mean?’ But when you think about it, to be an immigrant; to pick up your life, leave a culture that you’re familiar with; your country, your family, your friends; often at tremendous personal and financial risk, and go to another country, a new culture, often a new language; that is a profoundly entrepreneurial act. And so, it shouldn’t surprise us that once folks like that get here, they continue to be profoundly entrepreneurial. And in fact, the research has borne this out that immigrants are twice as likely to start a business as native-born Americans. And so, notwithstanding the fact that they represent about 14 percent of the American population, they represent about somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of the ownership of small businesses. And when you look at high-tech startups; scalable, high-tech, high-impact businesses started in Silicon valley, as many as half of those businesses are started by immigrants. So immigrants themselves are highly entrepreneurial. The other reason why it’s so important to us is entrepreneurs of all kinds need skilled talent. And one thing that we heard at the round tables that we conducted around the United States is that there is a real talent gap or skills gap. And this is particularly relevant. You’ve heard this and read about it in the context of STEM, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, American colleges and universities simply are not producing enough folks with those backgrounds, and so there is a skilled labor gap in this country for startups and other businesses. And therefore, there is great interest and great demand in foreign-born talent. And the very first piece of research that we published after we launched was a research paper project by our research director at the time, Ian Hathaway, who’s one of the great young scholars of entrepreneurship in the country, and found that 43 percent of Fortune 500 companies and 57 percent of the top 35 companies were founded by either a first or second generation immigrant. So, the history of entrepreneurship in the United States is an astonishing history of the contribution of immigrants to the United States in the U.S. economy. And the 21st century, economy is the knowledge economy, it’s the information economy and it is going to be the competition for the 21st century is going to be won or lost based on human capital. And so, it’s one of the realities, the unfortunate aspects of this issue that the political issue of immigration and the way that too large of a portion of our population and too many of our politicians think about and talk about this issue as if immigration is some sort of a threat to the United States when in fact, as Ronald Reagan and lots of other politicians in the past have recognized, immigration is one of the great sources of strength and vigor and vitality and dynamism of the American experiment. And we need to get back to that.
Denzil Mohammed: You mentioned Ronald Reagan, who said, ‘It’s at our peril if we ignore the fact of vigor and vitality that immigrants continue.’ And it’s not a new phenomenon. Let’s make that very, very clear. Immigrants have always brought that entrepreneurial spirit with them whether as entrepreneurs or whether as workers. And their children end up doing exponentially better, very often, than their parents did. And that’s the whole point of coming to the United States. What has been the policy response from politicians as you’ve done your work in the past four years?
John Dearie: Too many people in the United States these days think about the U.S. economy as sort of a closed sandbox. And so if somebody is coming in from the outside, then within that construct or understanding of the economy, they are necessarily displacing somebody who was already here. And that’s, of course, not true. And the reason it’s not true is that the economy is not a sandbox. It’s a dynamic organism. It’s living and breathing. And when you change the inputs into the economy, specifically with regard to talent or labor, there is an economic reaction to that. And there is lots and lots. In fact, the vast preponderance of research on both the right and the left into this phenomenon of immigration make very, very clear that the contribution of immigrants to the United States is pro job creation for Americans. Immigrants do not displace Americans. They create new businesses that create new jobs, new opportunity, new wealth for Americans. For whatever reason, that is difficult for people to accept. It’s just too easy to think about the economy in that sandbox way, most folks are not economists and they’re not particularly sophisticated in terms of their understanding of the economy. And so it’s a very easy topic to demagogue politically, and unfortunately, too many politicians do that. Of course, it makes it easier when there are legitimate crises having to do with immigration, like what’s going on in recent months at the Southern border, that is a legitimate problem. And the result is that our immigration system in this country is broken, our immigration policies in this country are crazy. And when we do round tables around the United States, as we continue to do, with entrepreneurs to stay in touch with the issues and the priorities that matter to them, the issue that gets them the angriest and where they really, literally pound the table is immigration. They can’t find the people that they need, they can’t get folks that they know that are in foreign countries who are business partners with them who are starting companies with them or talent that they’re aware of that they need desperately. They can’t get these people into the country in a secure and predictable way. And for the life of them, they can’t understand it because there is no understanding. It’s completely contrary to the interest of the United States.
Denzil Mohammed: Jeez, you unpacked a lot there! I spoke to a group of journalism students from Emerson, and the idea of immigration being the southern border is paramount in the majority of Americans’ thinking. They think of immigration and that’s all they can come up with. And it’s so much more complex than that. So you mentioned that the response to your policy work has not been great. Briefly, what are some specific policy areas that you’ve been working on? Startup visas, for instance.
John Dearie: We have a number of immigration reform items that we advocate for. One is a startup visa, which I’ll come back to in a moment. The other one is graduation green cards, as far as we’re concerned for all the reasons that you’re talking about, if immigrants who come here and are educated at American colleges and universities want to stay here after graduation, why on earth would we require them to leave? That’s our current policy, is that they’re allowed in on a student visa. And then after they complete their degree, we basically deport them. In the very narrow interest of the United States, if folks want to stay here of their own volition, we’re not forcing them to stay, but if they want to stay here, why on earth would you not let them? So we’re in favor of graduation green cards and other aspects of immigration reform. But back to the startup visa, the United States is one of the few industrial democracies around the world that does not have a visa category specifically intended to attract and retain foreign-born entrepreneurs, specifically entrepreneurs who want to come to the United States to start their businesses and create jobs for Americans and contribute to the American economy. Our economic competitors around the world, and practically all of them are in Europe and Latin America, China, obviously, have overhauled their immigration policies in recent years, specifically to roll out the red carpet for foreign-born entrepreneurs, including our entrepreneurs. They want them to come there. Often very generous; free office space, access to capital at very low rates, access to mentoring and coaching. It’s all kinds of benefits; very, very attracting. Come here and start your business here. Meanwhile, the United States does not have such a visa category. And we think that’s insane and we’ve been working very, very hard on creating this special visa category. Since we launched in 2017, it’s been our top immigration priority. The good news is that working with other groups who are similarly minded and entrepreneurship focused like the National Venture Capital Association, the Angel Capital Association, Engine and other groups around the country. We worked very closely with Congressman Zoe Lofgren from California who backed about six weeks ago, introduced a bill that would create a startup visa. So, the good news is that there is a bill in Congress now to create a start-up visa. The bad news is that notwithstanding the incredibly hard work by us, NVCA, Engine, Angel Capital Association and others, we couldn’t get a single Republican in the house to co-sponsor the piece of legislation going back to what we were just talking about in terms of the unfortunate political dynamics around the topic of immigration. It is unfortunately where the GOP base is at the moment, after four years of a president who, in my opinion, talked about the issue of immigration in the wrong way, that it has become politically toxic for Republican members of Congress to support policies that would make it easier for immigrants to come to the United States, even immigrants who were coming here specifically in the context of entrepreneurs to start new businesses.
Denzil Mohammed: That is absolutely fascinating that so many other countries are, as you say, rolling out the red carpet for people who want to start businesses. And you mentioned Bettina Hein who was on your board, what a story that is. She founded an incredible business in Boston, right here, called Pixability. She explored every possible avenue, including the O-1 visa which is for exceptionally talented people, including Nobel laureates. She was able to secure that, but that visa obviously ran out. She’s now back in Europe because she was not able to remediate. There was no avenue for her to remain here, despite the fact that her children were born here, she raised a family here, she started a business employing hundreds of people over several years. That’s absolutely fascinating. Now, just get back to this idea, obviously we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, but how American is this concept of immigrant entrepreneurship? Can you explore that a little bit?
John Dearie: Sure. Well, first of all, just let me say very quickly to emphasize what you just said about we’re shooting ourselves in the foot and how our insane immigration policies, particularly over the last four years have been a great boon to Canada. There were more technology jobs created in Toronto in 2018 as the latest data than were created in Silicon valley, New York City and Washington DC combined. And the reason for that is that when the president of the United States talks about immigration and talks about immigrants in the language that their former president talked about, it sends the message to the rest of the world, ‘Don’t come.’ And so they don’t. And yes, Bettina Hein is a marvelous example of this issue. I’d love to tell this story very quick. The roundtable at which I met Bettina, but there were two other people at that roundtable. And this example was so vivid, I included it in my book that I subsequently wrote. These two guys who were roommates at MIT as undergrads, started a business. When we met them that they had graduated from MIT, they had just gotten their second round of funding. They had expanded their company from just the two of them to 15 other people. And so they were growing. And these two best friends from college, straight guys, were considering getting married in order to keep the foreign-born founder in the country because his visa had run out and he was about to be deported. I will never forget that story. That that’s the desperation of these people. These two straight guys were thinking of getting married, just to keep the foreign-born founder in the country. I mean, it’s a funny story, but it’s of course horrifying. And I just tell that because it was the most vivid example to me of just how crazy our immigration policies are. But back to the history of immigration in the United States, it’s been easier or harder over the course of our history for immigrants to come here. But, of course, there’s been a very important and very special part of our history here in the United States is the history of immigration. The great analogy of the United States being the melting pot of many people from all over the world with all their different ideas, their various talents, their languages, the food, the music, that the American experience is the melting pot of all of these experiences from all over the world. And what comes out of that melting process is the secret sauce of America. That’s what Ronald Reagan, I think, was referring to. And in his great speech, the last speech he gave before he walked out of the White House was the importance of immigration to the United States, not just the American experience and how we think about ourselves, but economically how important it was and politically, and he said, ’If we ever lose sight of that, if we ever lose sight of how important this is to who we are, it is, as you said before, at our peril! What could be more American than taking in a baseball game on a great afternoon, having a couple of Budweisers, a couple of hot dogs and singing God Bless America at the seventh inning stretch. What could be more American? It’s hard to think of something more American than that, right? Baseball is a British game that came to the United States by way of Canada, the beers and the hotdogs are German. And the song God Bless America was written by a Russian-born Jew named Irving Berlin. But the result, when you put them all together, these contributions from immigrants all over the world, you create something uniquely American. That’s America!
Denzil Mohammed: John Dearie from the Center for American Entrepreneurship, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this and best of luck as you advocate for Washington.
John Dearie: Thank you very much. I really appreciate the opportunity. It’s great to see you. I’m sorry it’s been so long.
Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s fascinating story of the benefits of welcoming, talented, and driven immigrants to the United States. If you have feedback or know someone who we should talk to, email Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L at jobmakerspodcast.org. I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another episode of JobMakers.
Episode 29: Bernat Olle
Bernat Olle, an immigrant from Catalonia, Spain, founded a bioscience company to create medicines that can alter the human microbiome. He discusses how immigration enables international cooperation and innovation that benefits everyone. Listen to learn what Olle says connects him to immigrants who come here with nothing but a suitcase and a dream. We also have a full-length video interview here.
Episode 28: Abdul Saboor Sakhizada [part two]
Afghan translator turned American immigrant joins JobMakers for a second episode to discuss his current campaign to evacuate fellow Afghan interpreters and their families, including his own younger brother. Sakhizada shares how interpreters face challenges both in Afghanistan and in the U.S. Listen to learn what he says U.S.-born people can do to help.
Part two of two.
Denzil Mohammed: I am Denzil Mohammed, and this is Jobmakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Last week we met Abdul Saboor Sakhizada, a former translator, instructor and a manager for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, now living with his family in upstate New York. He spoke about life as a child of war, and what it was like in the front lines alongside U.S. troops, including Fox News contributor, Pete Hegseth. This week, Abdul reveals that he is actively trying to evacuate fellow Afghan interpreters and their families, including his own baby brother. He gives us his thoughts on the U.S. withdrawal, paints a picture of who those Afghan refugees are and entreats Americans not to buy into the false rhetoric and to get to know these new Americans in this final of a two-part special of Jobmakers.
Denzil Mohammed: You mentioned being seen as a traitor and betraying your country, and come to the present day you also feel a sense of betrayal, but not from those people in Afghanistan, but from America and coalition forces. Let’s talk a little bit more now about the work that you’re currently doing. So, I imagine several years ago you left Afghanistan and came to the U.S., right?
Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: Yes, that’s right. Yeah, so it’s a duality, right? Because I think you’re right. When I was there, I not only interpreted like a gazillion times of this doctrine, and preach this doctrine and live this doctrine of “shoulder to shoulder,” making promises to the Afghan security forces, to the host nation communities, to the villagers, to the teachers that “we’re going to be here, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.” If you promise not to support the bad guys, we’re going to be here. I know for a fact that I’ve attended countless number of meetings where coalition forces or U.S. forces had made those promises that, “you trust us, we’re going to help you, we’re going to save you, we’re going to protect you.” And then watching in 2021 in the fashion in which United States left Afghanistan, and here I am sitting after 20 years. I mean, I served that mission for seven years, but after 20 years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, it almost feels like all of that was a bad dream and very novelistic that just does not have anything in reality. If I would’ve read the story of Afghanistan from 2001 until 2021 in a novel, I would have probably said, “this is a made up story.” But seeing it unfold in front of my eyes, seeing all of this, seeing all that effort, all that money, it’s hard, man. It’s hard to process it. I still can’t believe this has happened.
Denzil Mohammed: So when you hear President Biden say something like “our involvement in Afghanistan was never about nation building.” How do you respond to that?
Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: As I said on my Pete Hegseth interview, I’m not into criticizing politicians or their politicians, but I can tell you for a fact the United States was there to nation build. It’s sad. What bothers me is that we have found a way to celebrate our defeat, to somehow paint a picture, this tragic picture, somehow still to celebrate “we did it good, it’s ok.” I guess we’re either numb, or we don’t understand what this all means. I mean, I remember reading a book and that book kind of talked about what winning looks like. And one of the things that this book talks about is that in military warfare, there’s two, and this part of it is confusing even for the citizens of United States and international community and audience concerned citizens, it’s confusing. Did we actually win in Afghanistan, or did we lose? So there’s two different aspects to this, right? Because if you actually look at the number of people that got killed, who lost the most? U.S. lost about 2,000-3,000 soldiers, somewhere around there roughly. And then there were in comparison, the insurgents. The Taliban may have lost hundreds of thousands of their fighters. So from that point on, the U.S. could say … and I’m not even counting the civilians that lost their lives, the teachers, hospital workers, doctors, engineers, and all of it. So that’s even a side story, another wound that we don’t want to open. But the point is that from a personnel standpoint, United States and international community may have not lost as many lives as the Taliban or the insurgencies did at that time. So from that point of view, one can make an argument saying, “Oh, U.S. actually won because when you enter a battle of warfare, they lost more fighters than we did, so we won.” But the second most important thing about warfare in Afghanistan, and particularly in the case of Afghanistan, is whose flag is up at the end of the battle? Which army has their flag up? And clearly we know that United States and Afghanistan flag is not up right now, and the insurgency’s flag is up. So this debate as to whether or not we lost, we won in Afghanistan, what this all looks like, our mission was not to nation build … well, you’re hearing it from me. I’ve attended hundreds of meetings where we talked about building infrastructure, building a state, state-building. USAID implemented hundreds of projects fighting corruption, building infrastructure there, addressing the recruitment process of how to hire women and minorities and all of this. There are hundreds of projects on governance in Afghanistan, building a governance system. If those are all not nation building, I don’t know what is. So the point is, I don’t buy that story because I know for a fact that we were there to nation build. We did go there to nation build. We poured billions of dollars into that nation to nation build.
Denzil Mohammed: I want you to bring it into the present day. We know what’s happening in Afghanistan, we’ve all seen the images and the footage from the airport, people climbing onto planes, even as they’re moving, some falling to their deaths. What is your role right now? What are you doing?
Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: When we saw that Kabul was collapsing, I immediately got on the phone. I started calling all my military buddies, including Pete Hegseth, and anyone that I could possibly find. I said, “I need help. I need to save my brother. I need to save my family.” And so I ended up talking to some friends, and those friends found their friends, and eventually we found the ways to save my brother and get him through those gates at airport despite the chaos, despite the disorder that was there. So we certainly made the impossible possible, but it was all done through the efforts of a lot of folks that may hear this voice and my heartfelt gratitude goes to all of them for doing this. And so eventually when we found out a way to save lives, we basically took that methodology that we had and we started saving other interpreters, other families. We had a system and others made referrals to us and we started doing the same thing with them, and because we had the right point of contact from that point on, up until when the blast went off, until the suicide bomber blew himself up at the Abbey Gate in Kabul at the Karzai airport. And so that was when our mission of evacuation kind of went through this break, this halt. Right now we’re putting up a team that are going to do some of those evacuations because we know there are a lot of interpreters, we know there’s a lot of folks that helped U.S. mission in Afghanistan. I have visited Fort Pickett, Fort Lee to get close to some of the Afghan refugees that are here in the state-side and to offer some support. We’re actively putting classes together for them to go deliver some of the services, whether that’s culture, whether it’s U.S. expectations and laws, and even giving them the broader picture of what to expect when they get out of those military bases and they start living in American society, just like all of us. So we’re doing things in different levels to help as much as we can through the group that we have through the nonprofit efforts that we have put together.
Denzil Mohammed: So finding creative ways of getting evacuees out of Afghanistan and into some kind of safety. So we are expecting refugees and people on special immigrant visas to be resettled in the U.S., that has already started happening, coming from Afghanistan. Help our audience understand. Who are these people? What are they like? What are their backgrounds? And I do remember reading there was some 50,000 Afghan interpreters over the course of the war.
Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: These are people like me, now you’ve gotten to know a little bit about my story. These are engineers, these are doctors, these are people with unique skills that we don’t get to see as often in United States, they are bilinguals in most cases, some of them know more than two or three languages. They’re also folks that have been deprived of education in their lives, like there are women, for example, girls. So you get a whole mixture of different categories of population that come in to the United States. And I come from a background of serving immigrants, serving refugees in the United States because professionally that’s what I did for about six years of my life here. So for those that are not as equipped to be ready to join or to contribute immediately to the American economy, then what you do is you connect them to the right resources to make sure that they’re getting equipped or can establish them on the path to self-sufficiency. But eventually they will all be just like all of us, and their children will be just like our children here or the children of American-born citizens.
Denzil Mohammed: I’m sorry, I thought people moved to the U.S. in desperate circumstances just to live off welfare. Are you saying that’s not how it is?
Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: Quite honestly, I think they’re quite the contrary. There’s a benefit welfare program that offers benefit, and these people are eligible by law to benefit from those programs. But no, like I said, these guys are not free-riders. They are engineers and they have skills to offer. With my program, I specifically initiated a work program how to transfer their certificates. So we have nurses for example, and they were nurses in their home country but they did not meet New York nursing standards, or whatever that was. So they had to go take some tests, to pass their test and exams, to be certified again as a registered nurse. But for that, it takes time. And until that takes place, they have to learn a little bit of language, they have to be ready to understand the medical terminologies or medical language, and they have to also work as maybe janitors or perhaps a cleaner somewhere to make a living. And some of those folks that have a large family or so may also benefit from welfare from other things, but that will be temporarily, because once they get back the job that they had studied for, the goals that they have for their life, it will just be like the rest of Americans. But I have to say, and I think this question alludes to this larger, larger picture, because we don’t get to talk about it as much, is the melting pot, the American melting pot. The crucible of everyone coming in and immediately overnight changing and losing their identities, losing their values and the things that they have, and automatically accepting American values. Keep in mind that they were. I mean, look at me! I grew up in a war zone. I grew up under a very highly conservative society. And for us to come in and be exposed to a whole set of new values and information, it takes time for folks to go through this “melting process.” And I think we’re not realistic enough. And for those that question it, had they lived on the shoes of those families that are going through this transition every single day? I would almost guarantee you that they would have quite a different experience of what that would be like.
Denzil Mohammed: That’s a really important point to make. That adjustment does take time, and so many of them didn’t have the luxury of MTV and these other things, movies and Hollywood, to acclimatize them beforehand, growing up in such an insular, very religious society. But, the one thing that these people want is freedom. They want opportunities.
Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: When I first came into the United States, the sky was the limit. Opportunities left and right. And for someone like me and full of energy, trying to do as much as I can to scale up the social economic ladder, or perhaps being engaged, like the same energy with the same thing I did in Afghanistan, you know the sky was the limit. I wanted to seek every opportunity I possibly could for my family or for professionally or academically. And I managed to go through three different degrees in four and a half years. I did my associate’s, I did my bachelor’s, I did my master’s all in four and a half years of my five years of time in the United States. Part of that was that I saw opportunities out there and I wanted to utilize them, and because I know for a fact that a lot of these families that come into the United States as community members, if we support them and help them thrive, the community in general thrives. The community in general uplifts themselves, and they have better community members to contribute back to the community. But I can also guarantee you on the contrary, that if some of these families struggle and they cannot adjust their life, because we know how hard adjustment is, and if they struggle, I could almost guarantee you that then the entire community will struggle.
Denzil Mohammed: It’s important for America to remember not to re-traumatize these families who have been through already so much. This is a moment where we can really show how compassionate we can be, how welcoming we can be, how our value system is, which is that we welcome the stranger who wants to work hard, who’s fleeing something terrible. And we need to also remind people that people who were forced to flee generally don’t want to flee. They would rather stay in their home country and build it up, right?
Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: And for their children, and the school that their children go to. It just blows my mind. So I think it comes back to that one word in my mind: engage. Engage and you will learn because that’s where it all starts. But if you keep isolating yourselves and keep seeing your neighbors as this “other,” not as “we,” then that is the source of all evils in my mind. That creates a gap between you and the neighbor. But when you think about “we,” then you’re putting yourself in the same circle. You’re putting yourself in the same umbrella of, “we’re a part of this community, and we’ve got to help each other out.”
Denzil Mohammed: I dare anyone listening to this podcast. Before you make an opinion public about Afghan refugees in your community, go say “hi” to one. Find out who they are for yourselves, and you will be incredibly enlightened, and you may be able to then share a different opinion on refugees being resettled in the U.S. Abdul Saboor Sakhizada, thank you so much for joining us and giving us all of your experiences and your perspectives, and really on the work that you’re doing right now to get people out of Afghanistan to safety, wherever that may end up being, whether it’s the U.S. or other places. We really, really wish you the best of luck.
Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: Well, I appreciate you having me on the program. Thank you so much. And thanks for what you do, because it’s important for people to know the facts, the realities, and also the inside stories of some of these families.
Denzil Mohammed: Jobmakers is a weekly podcast about the contributions of immigrants and refugees produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center of Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this final of this two-part special of Jobmakers. We return to regular Jobmakers next week with Spanish-born life science entrepreneur, Bernat Olle, founder of Vedanta Biosciences, who is revolutionizing the world of the microbiome. I am Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday afternoon for another Jobmakers.
Episode 27: Abdul Saboor Sakhizada [part one]
Before coming to the U.S., Abdul Saboor Sakhizada worked for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan as an instructor, manager and translator, winning an award for his service in the process. Now he’s struggling to ensure that people like him have the opportunity to reach safety in the United States and contribute to their new home. Tune in to hear his remarkable story and his insights into how the current wave of Afghan refugees will fare in the United States.
Part one of two.
Episode 26: Jim Stergios
As a child of immigrant entrepreneurs, Jim Stergios has special insight into the contributions of foreign-born people in the United States. As the executive director of the Pioneer Institute think tank, he also understands the current heated political conversation over immigration. Tune in to discover how he believes today’s immigrants are different and similar to the immigrants of his parents’ generation.
Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. And this is JobMakers
Denzil Mohammed: At the start of this year. Pioneer Institute collaborated with The Immigrant Learning Center on this podcast due to our deep roots among immigrants in Massachusetts and beyond, particularly those who are overrepresented in one very important field. Job creation. Immigrants have always been inherently entrepreneurial, from Levi’s jeans and Coors beer to Goya foods and Tesla, but that penchant for creating jobs flies in the face of the myth that immigrants take jobs. For Jim Stergios, executive director of Pioneer Institute, it is a story that needs to be told. It is after all at the core of American enterprise, innovation and prosperity. It’s what gives the U.S. its edge over other countries and it’s the truth, for Jim and is also personal. His father and uncles got together and started their own business as young immigrants to the U.S. from Greece. There’s a common story about immigrant families, old and new, and Jim believes the entrepreneurial spirit of yesteryear is the same among today’s immigrants, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Jim Stergios, thank you for joining us on JobMakers. How are you?
Jim Stergios: I’m doing really well. And thanks for having me, I really appreciate the opportunity and you’re doing a great job.
Denzil Mohammed: Pioneer Institute is the one who approached The Immigrant Learning Center about doing a podcast on immigrant entrepreneurship and immigrant contributions called JobMakers. Where did that idea come from?
Jim Stergios: There are all sorts of divisions in how people talk about immigration and entrepreneurship and frankly they’ve lost the sense that entrepreneurship and the creation of jobs and companies are an integral part of why we seek, why we welcome immigrants into this country. If you look at the left, I think there’s a lot of thinking that, I guess, all sides are a little bit cartoonish on this, the left believes that America is sort of an oppressor society. If you go to the traditional right, I think they’d probably say maybe even libertarian-side free capital and free labor, let it all flow, and then you have the more revanchist right that we saw during the Trump years really take hold, which is, oh my gosh, all of immigration is a messiness at the southern border and that’s all it is. And you know, I, sometimes I have to tell you, sometimes I look at the Facebook page where we post up the fantastic work that you’re doing, talking about people creating jobs and people coming here with dreams and wanting to do stuff. And I shake my head and say, do people actually think that immigrants, that the whole immigration picture is about protecting the southern border? And it’s a sort of madness. So, watching that kind of a conversation that people don’t even have, they just talking past each other. I wanted to really emphasize real people doing real things, facing real problems, trying to build a real life here in America, which is why they come you know, things like, “I want to start a business, I have a dream, I want to start this business and maybe I can’t get there immediately.” Let me go do something else on there, solve that problem or find some capital. I’m gonna find some talent. I’m going to figure out how to train them. I’m going to do whatever I can define the connections to find a way to go to market and improve people’s lives. And then, yeah, I’ll make a buck at the same time. That’s kind of what this country has been about. And I think that whole thing has been lost. And maybe if I get to say one more thing, which I think is absolutely crucial, this conversation, and that is I think Americans lose sight of the fact that the entrepreneurial spirit really does come from immigrants. Immigrants come here for a reason, for the most part. You know, of course there are people at the edges, I get all that. But they come here for a reason. They want to do something, and they recognize that this society allows them to do stuff that maybe their home country would not. And that’s the beautiful mix between an immigrant wants to build something in the United States, which tends to like to see people build stuff.
Denzil Mohammed: It’s a story I hear over and over again, no matter if you’re in big pharma, pharmaceuticals, life sciences or you run a doggy daycare or a corner shop somewhere, it is the same story. And I’ve heard from again from highly, very highly educated people talking about, well, back home in India and Pakistan, I didn’t belong to the right tribe or my skin color is not something that people would want to give me money to invest in my business idea. Dominican women who came from a very patriarchal society who would not have been able to start businesses in the Dominican Republic are able to do that here. That entrepreneurial spirit, business owner, or not that entrepreneurial spirit drove them to take a risk and to come here to create a better life. Now, the fact that we present facts, we present research, we present stories and yet even some of the simplest things like the data is questioned. People question the data, the question, the numbers, the question, the motivations of people who come here. what do you think is at the heart of this kind of response, this really visceral response to immigration today?
Jim Stergios: I think it’s dislocation in the economy, number one, and there were certainly sort of, we’ve always had ethnic. I shouldn’t say “we,” the entire world has always faced ethnic and racial biases. We are not unique in that. We have a unique story around racial bias and around ethnic biases, we certainly do, but anyone who’s traveled. And I spent the first 10 years of my career abroad in Europe and in the far east, and look, these are things I saw everywhere. I think the second thing I’d say, and this is more now than when I was a kid. I feel like these days, there’s just so much divisiveness around what you have and protecting what you have. It’s probably because people feel more at risk. I hope it’s not more than that. I’d like to think it’s not. And I think that’s why we’re doing this podcast and trying to participate in this way. And just trying to inform people about real stories and real people, is when you understand real people and those things start falling away.
Denzil Mohammed: And immigration has always been to our benefit, which is a big part of the puzzle for me, that has given opportunity to people who have in turn created jobs and built up economies and expanded local economies. But you have a personal connection to immigrant entrepreneurship. And tell me a little bit about your parents.
Jim Stergios: I have the traditional immigration story where mom and dad, neither, both of whom completed high school, one with a GED, came over from Syria and Greece. Neither had anything to their name and they meet, they fall in love. My dad had been at war and World War II. A Marine in the far eastern theater came back, had some trouble, I think, in terms of trying to figure out what to do with his life after war. War is a tough thing. Moved from sales position to sales position, and finally settled on working with his brother, very family-oriented business, and his other brother and founded a window and door and other construction materials, manufacturing facility. You know, it’s sort of hard work putting together money, trying to move things ahead. You at some point achieve some success and it’s kind of a funny thing. I guess the difference is these days, if I think about the culture, I mean, it was a pretty religious culture at home where you did a lot of Bible study and you’d try to read things and we were pretty different from, I think, immigrants today in two ways. One is, we were more closed now. We would hang around with Syrians and Greeks a lot and our interactions outside of that were at the public school where we’d get to meet other kids, so I think that’s a little bit different these days. I think there’s more of a yearning to connect with other immigrants, especially given the tenor of the conversation these days. I think it’s probably a little bit different, especially in urban areas. And I guess the second thing is my dad used to always say, “Don’t go to college. Work, do what I do, become just like me.” And I think these days, immigrants probably have a very different view for the most part, if you’re starting a business, you understand what education means and because we’re in a different kind of economy, a manufacturing economy, which is low investment, maybe upfront, building, building, building to the point where you can make bigger investments. That’s education plays a huge role now, which is, I think one of the big puzzles we have on the policy side in Massachusetts, to think through how we make sure we can address that issue.
Denzil Mohammed: What I’m getting at is this idea that somehow immigrants from the past were inherently different than immigrants of today?
Jim Stergios: Oh no, no, no, not at all. That’s not the case. I think they’ve just grown up in a different world where, you know, Daniel Bell, the sociologist from Harvard wrote a book called The Post-industrial Society back in 1968, I think it was. And he was simply saying, look, education is going to separate people going forward. And all I’m pointing to is that, that has had an impact on how immigrants come to this country and, and what they do here. But frankly, even back in the 1960s, we had a whole recruitment effort of highly educated Indians, for example, to come here and work in the medical field. So nothing’s really changed that much. I’m just saying that the educational emphasis is so huge now in terms of what you can do going forward that it’s probably something that has changed some of the pattern of what I grew up with, but the values are the same, the reasons why people come here are the same. I’m often really struck by when I talk to immigrants about what they think about the United States and then what I hear Americans say about their own society. I would guess the polling is somewhere around like, you know, the positivity around being an Americans, like huge among immigrants and among the sour-puss Americans these days, it’s so “we’re a terrible place.”
Denzil Mohammed: But bringing it into Massachusetts, where much of Pioneer Institute’s focus is what have you seen as the impact of immigration in Massachusetts? Particularly in the past few decades?
Jim Stergios: Yeah, I think there’s one constant, and that is immigrants coming into this country change not the underlying values, though people always feel like those are at risk. It’s rather how we interpret those values and the cultural impact of people across time are huge. And if we go back to the 19th century, anybody who’s been brought up in Boston understands the imprint on how we’ve interpreted freedom and how we’ve interpreted governing and how we’ve interpreted business creation the hospitality industry because of the Irish immigrants that were here, the role of Catholicism in our society vis-a-vis what was there before. I mean, huge, huge change. And every wave of immigrants brings that sort of larger cultural impact. And I think it’s all positive and enriching. I remember as a kid traveling to Fitchburg and to Lawrence and to Worcester connecting with people who were on my Syrian side, Syrian Orthodox church. And, you know, it was just terribly enriching to those places as well. So, it’s the impact of immigrants isn’t just economic, it’s literature. It impacts what we write about, the stories that we tell, the ones that we find most fetching, the ones that we find most interesting, it’s all impacted by that. But then of course there is this amazing impact on opportunity. And I think anybody who was in Kendall Square 30 years ago and stands there again now says, “Oh my God,” and I’m not saying those are all citadels built to the ingenuity of immigrants, but there are a lot of immigrants in those buildings. They built a lot of them. And that same thing is true across society. I mean, if you look at some of our institutions, our strongest institutions, the one that give real oomf, real impetus to the development of companies here, and let’s just talk for a second about our hospital sector, top dogs, ones that actually help us identify ways in which we can invest in the life sciences, a lot of immigrants there, and the people who are doing, even back in the seventies, you’re talking about a couple of decades going back to the seventies and eighties, the development of tech in this state, all highly influenced, highly driven by immigrants. So, I think anybody who talks to you, especially with MIT, Harvard, Boston University, Emerson College, Boston College, all these different universities, they’re highly dependent on, especially in the STEM areas, highly dependent on the talent that they can recruit and actively seek to recruit it. Come on, we know what immigrants have meant for the state.
Denzil Mohammed: You talk about Kendall Square, and I think you mentioned Moderna earlier, Pfizer, the other vaccine manufacturer, also founded by an immigrant, you know, maybe a century ago, but that tradition of immigrant entrepreneurship continues today and we’re all benefiting from it. But let’s not forget Field’s Corner. Let’s not forget some of these other places. The Immigrant Learning Center is based in Malden Pleasant Street, Main Street, all populated by many, many immigrants, immigrant-run businesses of every kind from the Irish pub to the Vietnamese nail salon. All of these places have been revitalized through people moving in when the rents were cheap and over, may take a generation or two, but it gets there to a place of safety and prosperity.
Jim Stergios: So that’s kind of what I was trying to get at earlier and didn’t say as well as you just said it. And what I mean is, look I’m not sour on Americans. I love this country and I love my fellow citizens, but, when you go to, everywhere from, Brookline to Malden, to Fields Corner, to Lawrence, who are starting those neighborhood businesses, yes, there are people who have been here for a century or more, but the real energy comes from folks who are immigrants and what would we do without these quintessential neighborhood businesses as well? So, that’s what I mean by replenishing the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s the desire, you’ve taken a risk to come here, the idea of taking risk, again, to put, you know, some money down and take a risk on your talent and your work ethic. You know, this is true when, I spent some time in academia and I would always have a laugh with one of my professors who used to say, “Jim, you eat every book you have, you are very desirous, you have big desires.” And I said, “I think it’s because I’m a kid of immigrants,” and I think it is true. Even there. She would always say, my best students are immigrants because they don’t take anything for granted. So, it’s all to be achieved. Look, I’m not trying to be overly sentimental here, but I do believe there’s something to replenishing the spirit of the United States that comes through immigrants. I think that often gets lost in the messiness of our conversation.
Denzil Mohammed: You mentioned something that I find very fascinating, which is this idea of the child of immigrants. We actually did a study through Paul Watanabe at UMass Boston on the adult children of immigrant entrepreneurs. You spoke earlier about your father wanting you to be an entrepreneur, but that this generation, you know, even the immigrants who start the laundromats or the nail salons or the grocery, really do focus on education. And what we found in that study is that the majority of the children of immigrant entrepreneurs actually go into occupations of service. So, they go into the medical field, they become social workers, they become people who serve their communities by and large, which I found absolutely fascinating. And I see that, you know, in a sense you’re doing much the same thing by trying to improve policy in Massachusetts, but are we failing our immigrants? And particularly as we talk about the children of immigrants in Massachusetts, you know, when polled people often find that the most detrimental impact of immigration is on our schools, can you talk a little bit about how Pioneer feels about this aspect of immigration?
Jim Stergios: Education is the thing that makes Pioneer’s heart go pitter patter, a good 50-60 percent of everything we do is related to K-12 education. It’s not even higher education it’s K-12 because we think those are the formative years. And, you know, I guess the thing I’d say is that look, Massachusetts is fortunate to have had political leadership in the past that supported big reforms and I think had some real impact on driving up the performance of low-income immigrant English language learner communities. And I feel like we have really slowed in that process to the point where, just to give one example, and I’m not trying to call out Boston per se, because it’s an issue that I think applies to a number of our districts, but the Boston public schools were actually put under a consent order by the Justice Department, the Department of Education in 2012, because the 17,000 of the 53,000, 54,000 students, about 30 percent of their students who were English language learners weren’t getting an adequate education. They weren’t having people that were trained. It was just a complete and utter mess. If you read the report, the department of justice, the department of education put out, it’s shameful. Massachusetts is a high-performing state overall, has among immigrants, even lower scores, and scores are not everything, but scores are something for their students than Florida. And I guess I’d say that’s something we need to rectify and pay a lot of attention to it for many reasons, there are reasons of equity and humanity and all the rest, but there’s also the one which goes to the heart of why people come here. That is a talent pool of people who are highly motivated because their parents are highly motivated and to lose the opportunity to have them do great stuff. That’s true of any kid, but of this group of folks who actually have probably inculcated into them from an early age, you must make something of yourself and do something to become a good American. That’s really shameful. And I think a real lost opportunity for revitalizing our cities across neighborhoods you’re talking about, but frankly, doing the great stuff in Kendall Square and elsewhere as well.
Denzil Mohammed: What is Pioneer’s position on immigration, what areas or issues under that large immigration umbrella are most important to you and why?
Jim Stergios: So, I think our position is, maybe I could state three philosophical things, just a little bit broad, but, you know, we respect people. We understand that all people have value and have something to contribute. And I think sometimes it’s good to just remember, we’re talking about individuals that comes from the libertarian spirit, all people matter, no one matters more than anyone else. We also believe in the rule of law. And I think the other thing we believe in is, we like debate. We like open debates, civil debate, and all three of these come crashing together on the immigration issue, because it means Pioneer will not have a clear position on some things because the rule of law bumps up against respect for all individuals, because of course, some people come from quote, unquote outside and some people are inside. Right? The thing that matters to us most is number one, having a real honest, but civil conversation around this based upon real lives with in mind, from Pioneer’s perspective, with two things in mind. Number one, immigrants make up a large portion of our public schools. We have to do right by them. And number two is they play an enormous role in the economic prosperity of this state and we want to make sure that we welcome them, that we benefit from them as much as we can and that they can benefit from being here as American citizens, if they so choose, or on work visas if they don’t choose to be American citizens. And we want that to be done fairly and without bias. So, those are the two things that matter most to us and the places that we look most. And I think you’ll see, for example, Pioneer Institute is setting up a legal center. Some of the work that we’ll do will be probably related to making sure that immigrants are treated fairly here before the law, immigrant entrepreneurs will be treated fairly before the law. And you’ll see a lot of our work focus on making sure that people who may not have as much of a voice here are getting treated fairly by our school system and have ample opportunity to get educated. That’s through a new litigation center, we’re going to be setting up, early January and you’ll see Pioneer’s own work focus on those issues as well, over the coming years. So those are the two places where we land. I know there’s much more to the debate.
Denzil Mohammed: So, let’s recap, immigrants have an inherently entrepreneurial spirit. They are job creators because of that spirit. They believe strongly in the American dream. They believe strongly in freedom and opportunity. I think we’ve seen over the course of many decades that immigrants do integrate, that immigrants do learn English. Immigrant Learning Center is a free English language program. We have never had to advertise our services. We’ve always had a waiting list. That immigrants are not just numbers. They are people with stories and dreams that immigration in the U.S. is not just the southern border. It’s much more complex than that. And that we especially here in Massachusetts, but of course across the country have benefited from that entrepreneurial spirit, that desirous spirit of getting to the American Dream, whether it’s Biogen and Moderna and Pfizer or the neighborhood business that rectifies a food desert. And that this is intrinsically tied to the American story, right?
Jim Stergios: There is no American story without it.
Denzil Mohammed: Jim Stergios, executive director of Pioneer Institute. Thank you for joining us on Jobmakers.
Jim Stergios: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
Denzil Mohammed: Thank you for making this podcast possible. JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and the Immigrant Learning Center of Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s fascinating discussion on how immigrants together with the U.S. will make a better. If you know someone we should talk to email Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L at jobmakerspodcast.org. Leave us a review on your favorite streaming service. Join us next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.
Episode 25: Jaisang Sun
As an academic with a focus in refugee studies, Jaisang Sun has a unique perspective on today’s immigration conversation. Sun discusses the costs and significant benefits of our current refugee program, highlighting how refugees contribute financially and strengthen our communities. Listen to hear his perspective on the new influx of Afghan refugees that the United States is currently welcoming
Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: I’m sure you have an opinion on refugees, but how much do you actually know about them? What do you really know about the process of identifying, screening and resettling people from foreign lands who cannot go back home? For Jaisang Sun, research associate at The Immigrant Learning Center’s Public Education Institute, the co-host of this podcast, correcting misinformation and disinformation about refugees is paramount, especially today with the potential for an influx of refugees who assisted our special forces in Afghanistan and the consequent public discourse around it. Jaisang, or Jai, is completing his doctoral degree at Syracuse University with research on the deportation of refugees from the U.S. His interests include transnational migration, diasporic nationalism, multiculturalism and refugee studies. Jai clears the air for us on refugees and the resettlement program, including costs and benefits to us. And more importantly, he profiles just who refugees are, people just like you and me, except displaced and persecuted, with nowhere to go. Something many of us will never experience, as you’ll discover in this week’s JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Jaisang Sun, research associate at The Immigrant Learning Center’s Public Education Institute, welcome to JobMakers!
Jaisang Sun: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Denzil Mohammed: So refugees, of course, have been in the news quite a lot recently. And your research at Syracuse has focused on refugees, and the work you do as a research associate at The Immigrant Learning Center’s Public Education Institute looks at immigration broadly, including data and stories of refugees. Can you define who a refugee is and how that’s distinct from an immigrant?
Jaisang Sun: Sure. A refugee can be defined as a person outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to the country of origin or nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or a political opinion.
Denzil Mohammed: So it’s almost someone who’s pushed out of their home country, right?
Jaisang Sun: Absolutely. Forcefully displaced.
Denzil Mohammed: And that’s really the distinction for an immigrant, which is someone who generally chooses to move for some reason.
Jaisang Sun: Yes. A lot of people attribute that agency to regular migrants, whereas refugees would lack such agency to move about freely.
Denzil Mohammed: So what kind of person is a refugee? What kind of qualities do you think they have, or characteristics? What do they bring with them?
Jaisang Sun: Refugees are just like you and me. They are hard-working people, they are people with dreams and passion and goals, people who pursue happiness in their lives.
Denzil Mohammed: But the kind of person who is forced to move to another place. And let’s be clear, that move is not an easy move, right? It’s not as though they just get on a plane and land in Buffalo and they start a new life. Oftentimes they are forced to move to a neighboring country. They are in refugee camps, sometimes for years on end. The stories of refugees from Vietnam who had to flee in the dead of night, be caught by pirates, be caught by security, thrown in jail. What are some of the journeys like?
Jaisang Sun: I am not a refugee myself, so these are anecdotal evidences and stories that I have heard from others. But yes, most of refugees’ journeys to safe resettlement have been very dangerous, treacherous, and they were met with force many times. And the fact that they were displaced from home, I think it presents enough challenge for anyone, but to make that journey to safety is … I can’t even begin to fathom how difficult it may be.
Denzil Mohammed: And you bring up two important things. One is that they’re just like you and me. They just want to lead regular lives, they want happiness, they have dreams, they have passions. But they’ve also been through something that is life-changing, something that is dangerous, something that’s treacherous, life–risking. And so I think of some of the refugees that I know personally, you know, the person who cuts my hair, she tried to flee Vietnam 10 times as a teenager before she was actually successful. Each time she tried, she was thrown in jail. I think of Hong Tran who was interviewed for this podcast several months ago, who in the process of fleeing Vietnam, they were attacked by pirates and his mother and baby sister were killed. And then they have to go on in these new countries to learn a new language, learn a new culture, learn new laws, try to get an education. What happens to refugees once they’re resettled in the U.S.?
Jaisang Sun: That’s an excellent question. Many refugees go through the resettlement processes, which have been streamlined as a result of the 1980 Refugee Act. Although different agencies do different things, they are resettled and they are asked to meet an economic self-sufficiency by getting a job very, very quickly upon their arrival to the United States.
Denzil Mohammed: Specifically within two weeks.
Jaisang Sun: Not necessarily two weeks. The data goes to show that most refugees, once resettled, are able to secure some form of employment within two weeks of arrival.
Denzil Mohammed: And that form of employment is generally not where their careers left off in their home countries, right? I mean cleaning, Dunkin Donuts …
Jaisang Sun: Right, you see doctors and professors and these people with professional degrees having to start their new American life as dishwashers and janitors and things that they have never really done before.
Denzil Mohammed: And so what happens when a family gets settled in the U.S.? Who determines where they go? Who are the ones financially helping them out?
Jaisang Sun: The initial journey that refugees make are partially funded by the State Department through this international organization called the International Organization of Migration. Each individual is generally given a loan of about $1,100 so that they can make the journey over here. And after six months of arrival, they are expected to pay back in full amounts, although interest free, of the money that they borrowed from the State Department.
Denzil Mohammed: Beyond that, the help that they receive in settling in, in finding a job, in learning a language, those are generally done by nonprofits, right?
Jaisang Sun: Most of those works are done by nonprofits, and for decades, nonprofits have been the backbone of strengthening refugee resettlement programs within the United States, and also selling our model of doing refugee resettlement overseas to those countries that are just starting to pick up what it means to resettle refugees.
Denzil Mohammed: So Jai, give us an overview of refugee policy in the U.S. It’s a fairly recent phenomenon, no? Or did it start off much earlier than we think?
Jaisang Sun: It did start off much earlier than we think. When most people think about refugee policies and refugee resettlement, we often jump to the 1980 Refugee Act, which is not entirely false, but some would actually argue that the history of refugee policies started a long time ago. Some argue it started as early as the Mexican Revolution, when many, many people were displaced as a result of the revolution who were then admitted to the United States as refugees or given permanent residency. But certainly the modern refugee policies have roots we can date back to World War II, wherein Jews and other minorities under Nazi persecution challenged the world with a massive global refugee crisis. The first instance of the United States’ policies on refugees was perhaps the presidential directive dated December 22, 1945, when President Truman authorized displaced persons and refugees to receive expedited admissions to the United States within the framework of the existing immigration laws at the time, which was largely based on the quota system of 1917. Now, this directive allowed some 40,000 displaced persons to enter the United States under the existing quota regulations. And it was considered a success on the very first instance of the specific refugee act. And then in 1948, the Displaced Persons Act was passed, and it was the very first specific refugee act after World War II to address nearly 7,000,000 displaced persons in Europe in the aftermath of World War II and allowed refugees to enter the United States within the quota system. Needless to say, because of the immigration laws at the time, particularly the quota system and its roots in racism and segregation, it only accepted refugees of certain national and ethnic backgrounds. Notwithstanding its biased selection of refugees though, this act did admit more than 350,000 displaced persons into the United States. In 1952, the Immigration Nationality Act reorganized the existing immigration and nationality laws, and although it maintained a quota system, it lacked the refugee–specific provisions. So it allowed structurally for other ad hoc programs, including the Azorean Refugee Act of 1958, the 1959-62 Cuban Refugee Program, the ‘65 Cuban airlift, the ‘62 Hong Kong Parole Program. All of these ad hoc programs were installed between 1952 and 1965. In 1965, amendments were made to the Immigration and Nationality Act that fast-tracked the adjustment of status for a lot of refugees that came in already in the United States. And then in 1980, the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed, overhauling a lot of these ad hoc refugee programs and streamlining a lot of the processes and administrative procedures to go about bringing in refugees on a more orderly fashion.
Denzil Mohammed: So describe for us the waves of refugees we’ve seen since 1980.
Jaisang Sun: Since 1980, we’ve definitely seen a wide variety of refugees who entered the United States that have strengthened our diversity and our commitment to humanitarianism in this country. But many of our refugee patterns follow a lot of the crises that happened around the world at the time. So in the eighties, we saw a lot more Cubans coming into specific corners of our country and a lot of Indochinese refugees entering through the Pacific coast of the United States. And since then, we have seen an increasing number of refugees from the continent of Africa and the Middle Eastern region.
Denzil Mohammed: And Eastern Europe as well, right?
Jaisang Sun: Absolutely.
Denzil Mohammed: So what you’re saying basically is that we’ve for a very long time accepted refugees, no matter where they are in the world. At one point, there was a quota system that would have limited those admissions to an extent. But what is the responsibility of countries to accept refugees? What is this rooted in?
Jaisang Sun: I would argue that it’s rooted in our commitment to humanitarian principles. The United States government signed a United Nations High Commission of Refugees Convention, and the Protocol to it, as early as the 1960s. So some may argue that we are simply following our promise to adhere to these international guidelines, which are deeply rooted in the humanitarian principles to never see crises like we did in the aftermath of World War I and World War II.
Denzil Mohammed: Let’s bring it into Massachusetts. And Massachusetts is perhaps not widely known as a popular place to settle refugees, but we certainly have, and will continue to. So give us some stats about refugees in Massachusetts.
Jaisang Sun: Absolutely. Since 2010, to Massachusetts a total of 14,573 refugees resettled. The top five countries from which refugees came are Iraq with 3,849 people, Bhutan with 2,725 people, Somalia with 1,924, Democratic Republic of Congo with 1,576 people and Burma with 1,128 people. And there are different destinations within the state of Massachusetts, but we were able to identify Worcester, Lowell, Lynn and Springfield to be the top destinations for these refugees.
Denzil Mohammed: What are some of the trends we see with refugees to the U.S.? You talked a little bit earlier about economic self-sufficiency. What are some of the trends, financial and otherwise, that you see with refugees?
Jaisang Sun: Sure. There are different interesting facts and statistics and trends on refugees. For example, on average, refugees have shown to naturalize faster than any other lawful permanent residents. Sixty-six percent of refugees who entered the U.S. during the period of 2000 to 2010 became naturalized citizens. There are other statistics that look at employment of refugees. Studies have shown that refugee men specifically are in the workforce in higher rates than their American counterparts. In terms of refugee economic self-sufficiency, we have to remember that because refugees’ resettlement goal is to meet that economic self-sufficiency, they’re encouraged very much to find jobs very fast. Despite the fact that they are forced or they are encouraged to find jobs very, very fast, there are a lot of studies that show that it takes, on average, about seven years for an average refugee to reach that economic self-sufficiency. And again, the path to getting that economic self-sufficiency is not always very flowery for most refugees.
Denzil Mohammed: Describe that to us, because obviously most Americans don’t have a sense of what refugees have gone through in their home countries while being displaced, after leaving their home countries. Can you just sort of guide us through in a very descriptive way, what it is like for refugee families once they settle here? What do they go through?
Jaisang Sun: Absolutely. For example, there are statistics that go to show that about 46 percent of refugees, upon their arrival, are on food stamps. Needless to say, when they are receiving public benefits, such as food stamps, they don’t have much. They don’t have family members here, they don’t have friends or other networks that are giving them cash, they don’t have food, they don’t have toys for the children. So, in most instances, they don’t have the educational or the language ability to seek opportunities that they may otherwise be completely eligible for. So every aspect of life is incredibly difficult for them. And not to mention, because they are refugees who have experienced varying degrees of persecution, many refugees suffer from either physical or mental disabilities, and many of them have shown to suffer from PTSD specifically. So refugee lives upon resettlement doesn’t revolve around success stories only.
Denzil Mohammed: And as distinct from other migrants, I know that for instance, this podcast is called JobMakers, and we look a lot at immigrant entrepreneurs, who have a higher than average rate of business generation, because I know for immigrants overall it’s about 11 percent, and for refugees it’s about 13 percent. So Jai, can you sort of speak generally as to the impact of refugee resettlement in the receiving country?
Jaisang Sun: Sure. Refugee resettlement, albeit it is different than immigration, but the impact to which refugees have on our country and our communities are very, very similar. They enrich our diversity. They populate our cities. They bring in jobs. They become entrepreneurs. They become our partners, our family members and they become Americans. So the impact refugees have on our country are not only very similar to immigrants, but the fact that they are able to overcome a lot of the hardships and the difficulties in making the journeys over here help us to …
Denzil Mohammed: I mean, I feel as though they almost enrich the resiliency of America.
Jaisang Sun: Absolutely, they do. Absolutely. They bring living examples of how to overcome these difficulties, how to be successful. And they provide a blueprint for our next generation to be this resilient generation of Americans who will lead our country and continue to help in the spirit of humanitarianism that we have been doing for the last decades.
Denzil Mohammed: Is there anything else you wanted to add about refugees? There’s so much misinformation around refugees. If there are a couple of things that you wish would really be cleared up in the American public discourse on refugees, what do you think they would be?
Jaisang Sun: Like you said, Denzil, there are so many information regarding refugees, immigrants, refugee resettlement, immigrant integration. There’s such a wealth of information online and outside. One thing that I hope that the general population will look closer into is, they’re feeding these unfounded claims on refugees and immigrants. For example, just like how we talked about in the beginning of the podcast, they are people just like you and me. They bring hopes and dreams to this country, and statistics have shown that they reach success. They don’t reach success illegally. They don’t reach success through crimes. They reach success because they have grit. They have a spirit of entrepreneurship with them just like you and me. So I hope that, when looking for information online, people are able to see the true intent, and the clear information that they can find that’s based on facts and empirical results.
Denzil Mohammed: And I imagine that you will be coming up with some more of these facts and empirical results in your role as Research Associate at The Immigrant Learning Center’s Public Education Institute, whose mission is to educate Americans on the contributions of immigrants and refugees, and really to inform the discourse with facts, with nuance, with stories. And we need to remind ourselves that this is a nation of immigrants, and at the same time, we’re the greatest economic and cultural powerhouse in the world. And we’re enriched by all the different cultures and viewpoints and perspectives that have informed where we are today. Jaisang Sun, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers.
Jaisang Sun: Thank you.
Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center of Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s fascinating discussion on how immigrants and refugees, together with the U.S.-born, make a better U.S. If you know someone we should talk to, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Leave us a review on your favorite streaming service, too. I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.
Episode 24: Jeff Goldman
As co-founder of the Massachusetts Global Entrepreneur in Residence program, Jeff Goldman has seen firsthand how immigrant entrepreneurs make the economy stronger and more dynamic. Goldman discusses how the United States can better capitalize on the innovation and talents of immigrants, particularly entrepreneurial immigrant college students. Tune in to also find out how he sees undocumented workers impacting U.S.-born people’s day-to-day lives.
Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Immigrants innovate. Kendall Square in Cambridge or Silicon Valley wouldn’t be what they are today without the ingenuity of immigrants, but the dense and convoluted immigration system doesn’t always allow for that retention of skill and talent, which would of course be to America’s benefit. For Jeff Goldman, immigration attorney and chair of Governor Charlie Baker’s Advisory Council on Immigrants and Refugees, ingenuity to tackle that convoluted system was what was needed to ensure highly skilled and innovative immigrants could remain in the U.S., start companies and create jobs for Americans. Jeff co-founded the Massachusetts Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program, which modeled new ways for foreign–born university students to continue learning, teaching, innovating and creating jobs in the U.S. Jeff sees how much skilled immigrants add to economic vibrancy, and he’s also keenly aware of the tremendously positive impact on our daily lives of undocumented immigrant workers and what Massachusetts has done to enable them to thrive, as you’ll learn in this week’s JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Jeff Goldman, welcome to JobMakers!
Jeff Goldman: Thank you, Denzil.
Denzil Mohammed: So you’re an immigration attorney, which means you help foreign-born people come to the U.S. legally. Is immigration a good thing for the country and the Commonwealth, and how do you know this?
Jeff Goldman: Immigration is such a positive thing for the United States and for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and I know it because I see it every single day. I also know it because there are so many authentic reports that are put out by respected non-government organizations, bipartisan commissions, all pointing to the benefits of immigration to the United States. I see it every day, Denzil, because in my practice, we’re mostly working with business immigration, helping U.S. employers grow and expand in this economy. And they do it with U.S. workers, and when they can’t find enough U.S. workers, they look to hire foreign nationals. And my law firm is very busy making sure that they hire foreign nationals through the legal system and that everything is done correctly, and every time we get an H-1B visa, L-1, O-1 visa, green card for these companies, we see them grow again and hire again, mostly U.S. workers, but filling in with foreign nationals as needed.
Denzil Mohammed: So I was gonna ask you also about your clients and who they are. You said business immigration and companies. What kinds of companies have you worked with? And also tell us, over the years that you’ve been practicing, has immigration law become easier or harder?
Jeff Goldman: The companies I’m working with are mostly in the life science/pharmaceutical sectors, a lot of technology, manufacturing and definitely finance. All of the companies, and I’m talking about hundreds of companies that I represent, are in growth mode. It’s been a long time since I received a request on what to do if they’re laying off a foreign national or any worker. They’re growing and they’re hiring and immigration plays such an integral part. Has immigration become easier or more difficult over the years? I think it’s clear it’s become more difficult, for many reasons. First of all, the demand to employ foreign nationals has never been greater in the U.S. economy than it is today. Most of your listeners may or may not know that the number one way foreign national professionals come to work inside the United States is through the H-1B visa. It’s one of the only ways tech companies can get software engineers that they desperately need; life science companies can get biologists, chemists, scientists; and financial organizations hire the right MBAs and other leading financial experts to work inside the United States. But the H-1B is limited to 85,000 every fiscal year. The demand is in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands, and thus the lottery is set up and only 85,000 are selected every fiscal year. This is almost crisis situation, where companies need these foreign nationals to continue to grow and expand, but the supply is not there. Critical point: these companies must pay a fair wage. These companies cannot undermine the U.S. labor force to bring in foreign national professionals to work. And for the most part, this works just fine. How do I know that? No company would pay immigration lawyers the fees we charge and the filing fees that the government charges to bring in a foreign national who is paid less. It’s not worth it. They’re paying so much in costs and fees that they wouldn’t do this. Nobody would do this.
Denzil Mohammed: You hint at this scarcity of high–skilled workers in the U.S., especially today where we see technology driving so much of the economy. So therefore you must have a very negative view on the past administration’s really dramatic crackdown on legal immigration to the U.S., right?
Jeff Goldman: Correct. The Trump administration is one of the first times I’ve known in my 30 years of practicing immigration law where a president tapped all aspects of legal immigration and claimed all of it is bad for the United States, contrary to mountains of evidence that state otherwise. And of course, we now know President Trump did this for his political agenda, to make sure that voters who were leaning toward President Trump, who are not generally in favor of immigrants, had a lot of fuel in the fire, to get them all excited to continue to jump on the Trump bandwagon. And it’s really unfortunate because had we just spent all of that time and energy trying to fix the problems with legal immigration rather than end it, we’d all be much better off today.
Denzil Mohammed: You say that this was one of the first times that you saw these kinds of actions, and it’s something I keep saying on this podcast: if immigration was bad for the U.S., why did we have it in the first place? It just so happens that we are the greatest economy in the world, and we’ve always accepted immigrants, these people who are self-selected to have this drive and ambition and determination to do better. Do you see, however, a real way to rebuild since Trump, and is the Biden administration moving in the direction that you’d like?
Jeff Goldman: The Biden administration is cautiously moving in the right direction. President Biden has set forth a wide range of immigration reforms he would like to see during his administration, but he readily admits he’ll never get to all of them. And I think at the top of the list is DACA, finding a solution to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrived without authorization as children due to no fault of their own, and they’ve been here their whole lives, and they add and add and add to our economy and our country, I am convinced. And both sides of the aisle is ready to move ahead with DACA and make it a permanent solution.
Denzil Mohammed: I do distinctly remember then-candidate Trump saying that DACA recipients had nothing to worry about. And then once he was elected, Jeff Sessions comes out and says, “hang on” [laughs]. And this political football that they are playing in terms of these lives and futures of these young people is beyond tragic. And as you mentioned, most of the public is in favor of some sort of path to legalization for these young people who have been through our education system, who deserve in-state tuition, who deserve to have careers where they are able to pay more in taxes and contribute more. But let’s bring the discussion locally. So you’ve been instrumental in several initiatives that both offer foreign talent the chance to remain in the U.S. and thrive, but also that nurture a narrative that emphasizes what, as you said, the mountains of evidence have already told us: that immigrants are assets. One of those initiatives is called the Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program. Tell us about that and the kind of growth that it experienced over the past few years.
Jeff Goldman: The Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program was created six years ago by a group of immigration lawyers, venture capitalists, corporate attorneys, and the government of Massachusetts, who came together to brainstorm solutions on how Massachusetts could continue to grow, even though the H-1B visas were so limited, and so many Massachusetts companies were left shorthanded in terms of software engineers and scientists, in order to move ahead. And I was on that committee, and we came up with a solution, which came to be known as the Massachusetts Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program, or the GEIR. Here’s the solution: the H-1B regulations limit the number of H-1B visas every year. However, there is an exception to the rule. There are four organizations that are called cap-exempt organizations. They can always hire an H-1B any time. Those four organizations are universities, nonprofit research organizations, government research organizations and nonprofit organizations that have an affiliation agreement with a university that benefits the university. Congress decided that these four organizations are so integral to the growth of the U.S. economy that they should always be able to hire an H-1B when needed. But that doesn’t exactly help all of the private companies that desperately need these H-1B workers. Well, I was familiar with one other exception in the immigration code: if a foreign national is present in the United States in H-1B status, then any entity, whether it be a nonprofit or a for-profit, whether it’s a government organization or a private organization, can immediately file its own concurrent H-1B petition and hire that same foreign national for full-time work at that entity. We presented this proposal to the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Massachusetts at Boston jumped at the chance to participate in this innovative workaround. So what’s happened in the past six years since this program has come into being? Well, hundreds of talented foreign nationals who were running out of work authorization and had nowhere to go have been legally employed by the University of Massachusetts at Boston, University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Babson College, Worcester Polytech and other universities who are participating in the Massachusetts Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program. Private companies have been able to retain them because they have cap–exempt H-1B status, and those private companies in the six years since our program started have hired thousands of U.S. workers, since they were able to capture these valuable H-1B workers. They have landed hundreds of millions in venture capital funding, all of that money staying here in Massachusetts. It’s been a win-win–win situation.
Denzil Mohammed: [People say] “I thought that if an immigrant took a job, that’s one less job for Americans.” And you’re saying no, that an immigrant gets a job in the U.S. at a high-growth company, and that actually helps make the company grow and offer more jobs to more U.S.-born people.
Jeff Goldman: If there’s ever a time in our nation’s history we need to celebrate this and expand it and grow it, it’s now. And we need to continue to be the attraction, the beacon of where these innovators and entrepreneurs want to be. We need to be inviting and welcoming and consistent. That’s what is so desperately needed in our immigration system.
Denzil Mohammed: Consistency. And I guess for a short time, we didn’t have that consistency, and we saw the number of students applying to universities here drop during the last administration. There was even an article in Forbes by Stuart Anderson, who predicted that legal immigration to the U.S. would have dropped by as much as 49% because of the Trump administration’s policies. But talk a little bit about your clients and your networks. What are the kinds of products and services and technologies you’ve seen your clients come up with, and how do you see them benefiting the ecosystem here in Boston?
Jeff Goldman: Well, some of the amazing clients I’ve had the privilege of working with are teams out of MIT, who are miles ahead in the effort to take ocean water and desalinate it and make it potable drinking water. This is something that people have talked about for hundreds and thousands of years. Wouldn’t that be amazing? And I think we’re closer than ever, and it’s foreign nationals out of MIT that are among the leaders working on this right now. I’m convinced that we wouldn’t have vaccines for COVID had it not been for the use of technology, and immigrants are by far and large behind the advancement of combining technology and science. I have clients in the engineering space finding solutions for 3D printing that actually is printing PPE gear, the protective gear that nurses and doctors need. Can you imagine that they’re now making this all out of 3D printing? All foreign nationals who came up with the algorithms and with the strategies and with the startup companies that are producing these materials.
Denzil Mohammed: You talk about vaccines. Charles Pfizer, co-founder of Pfizer, and Noubar Afeyan and Derrick Rossi, co-founders of Moderna. So, yes, we probably would not have had those vaccines if it weren’t for immigrants. So really incredible things that happen when we allow foreign talent to come here and innovate with Americans. You’re also the chair of the governor’s Advisory Council on Immigrants and Refugees. Now, I remember that in 2009, the previous council had developed a very meticulous Massachusetts New Americans Agenda. It contained detailed proposals and recommendations to bring out the best in the state’s immigrants and refugees, and covered everything from housing and language access to workforce development and civil rights. Where are we with this Massachusetts New Americans Agenda? Have any of the recommendations come to pass?
Jeff Goldman: Yes. Without question, several of the recommendations have come to pass, and I can talk about a few of them. The first thing is informing or suggesting to the highest levels of our government to recognize the importance of immigrants in our economy. And without question, the last several governors who we have had in the state have celebrated the contributions of immigrants. Governor Baker himself has done so much to make sure the immigrant communities understand that they are valued and welcome in the economy, and that they are aware that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts cares. Just a few days ago, Governor Baker was among the first governors in the entire United States to issue a statement advising all Afghan citizens of the Commonwealth that they are welcome here, that we are here to help them find solutions. He has repeatedly spoken in public about the need for immigrants to get COVID testing and vaccines, and he’s even let the undocumented immigrant community know that they are absolutely welcome to participate in COVID vaccines and COVID testing. This doesn’t go on around the entire country. Another recommendation of the group you’re talking about was to find ways to integrate legal immigrants in the Commonwealth into the professions and everyday fabric of American life in the Commonwealth. And since that recommendation has been made, a lot of money has been put into the state budget to help integration, starting with naturalization. It’s really hard to integrate immigrants if they don’t want to step forward and be part of the Massachusetts cultural and civic environment, and naturalizing foreign nationals who are eligible to become legal citizens of the United States is really the starting point. So ever since the Commonwealth has added to its budget the efforts of the Massachusetts Office of Refugees and Immigrants to help naturalize foreign nationals, I think the number of naturalizations of Massachusetts immigrants has just exponentially expanded, I can’t give you the exact number. One of the biggest parts of the New American Agenda was to find ways to help new Americans, legal foreign nationals, work in the very careers in which they were trained outside the U.S., specifically doctors and nurses. And the Commonwealth successfully did help foreign doctors who might not yet be licensed due to the very restrictive licensing rules we have in the Commonwealth and across the United States for doctors. There was the ability during the COVID crisis to permit foreign doctors to help with some of the urgent medical needs that came about during COVID.
Denzil Mohammed: You did make a lot of distinctions in terms of what Massachusetts has done for legal immigrants, and you did mention COVID testing for undocumented immigrants. I would venture to suggest that immigrants, documented or not, are all part of our economy. You take undocumented immigrants out, and who’s going to pick half of the fruits and vegetables in this country, who is going to take care of the sick? So in a sense, you can’t always parse out, let’s say for instance, federal aid that went out last year, not to families with undocumented immigrants. Massachusetts nonprofits got together and formed the MassUndocuFund to help fill that gap. Several other states, even red states, have done things that Massachusetts has not for its undocumented population. Things like offering in-state tuition to undocumented students, something as simple as that, so that they could continue and contribute more. Where do you see Massachusetts having not met the grade?
Jeff Goldman: I think Massachusetts celebrates immigrants. I think we do a lot to help even the undocumented. However, it is true, we have not passed a law allowing for in-state tuition, and we have not passed a law allowing undocumented people to have driver’s licenses, even though there’s much out there showing that this is a benefit to all, that it does not take away. It’s a very sensitive subject. And I can’t say I support, but I respect Governor Baker’s opinion that now is not the time to push these issues. But I think overall, even undocumented people would say that Massachusetts has done a pretty good job of helping them with their lives and permitting them to continue to add to the economy as best as they can. But we’re progressive, we’re smart. We understand the deep, deep connection between all immigrants, both documented and undocumented, in this economy.
Denzil Mohammed: Jeff Goldman, I could talk to you forever about these topics, and there’s so much more I want to get into, but I think we’re out of time for JobMakers this week. Thank you so much for making the time to do this. I really appreciate your insights, your perspectives and the information that you were able to bring to the audience. Thank you so much.
Jeff Goldman: Thank you, Denzil, and thanks to all the listeners out there for listening to me today. Have a great day.
Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center of Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s fascinating discussion on how immigrant talent makes a better U.S. If you know someone we should talk to, email email@example.com. Leave us a review on your favorite streaming service, too. I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.
Episode 23: Trevor Mattos
On behalf of The Boston Foundation, Trevor Mattos studies how immigrants have positively impacted the economy in every sector, from small businesses to biotech. His work goes beyond the economy, though, and demonstrates how diversity itself is an incredible benefit to U.S.-born and foreign-born Americans. Listen to learn how he can prove it.
Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Did you know that without immigration, Massachusetts would have lost congressional seats? Immigrants made up 90 percent of the region’s population rebound since 1990. Indeed, Massachusetts has always run on immigrants. In 1910, 36 percent of Boston’s population was born outside the country. In the Commonwealth today, there are more than one million immigrants making up about one in six residents. And while the immigrants of today may come from different parts of the world than before, the reasons are the same as they were back in 1910, freedom, opportunity, a better life. For Trevor Mattos, research manager at Boston Indicators, the research center at The Boston Foundation, educating those in city government and on Beacon Hill on the important contributions of immigrants is paramount, particularly in a time of divisive misinformation about immigrants and the precariousness of the pandemic. Trevor’s research reveals the disproportionately large impact immigrant workers, entrepreneurs and innovators are having on the local economy, from Kendall Square in Cambridge to the Latin Quarter in Jamaica Plain. His research goes further, however, to show how our increasing diversity enriches the lives of all Americans, new or old, and gives us a competitive edge, as you’ll learn in this week’s JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Trevor Mattos of the Boston Indicators project, thank you for joining us on JobMakers.
Trevor Mattos: Thanks for having me.
Denzil Mohammed: So tell us about your organization and mission. What do you do and why do you do it?
Trevor Mattos: So I am the Research Manager of Boston Indicators, which is the research center based at The Boston Foundation, which of course is the long–standing community foundation of our region of Greater Boston. What I do is analyze key indicators of social economic wellbeing. We research ideas for making our city, and I’m curving a little bit from our mission statement here, to make our city more prosperous, more equitable, more just. And we do a lot of this in partnership with other researchers, civic leaders, community groups. The output of all of that is oftentimes reports, research briefs, public forums. In the context of the pandemic all that’s virtual, but normally we’d get a whole bunch of people together at The Boston Foundation offices downtown and present some findings, have a discussion. At least from my personal perspective, I’ve always been interested in using rigorous analysis, research, to better understand our economic challenges, and the opportunities that are facing our population. Ultimately, full disclosure, what I’m interested in is creating positive change, reducing poverty, increasing access to opportunity more broadly. And then there’s a little bit of the personal side too, where, at least for the context of today’s discussion, I’m a second generation immigrant with family roots back in Peru and South America. I’m pretty deeply inspired by the courage and the journeys that immigrants like my mother took to the United States, and many others do every year, in pursuit of greater opportunity. So that’s sort of what brings me to the work, a little bit of my vantage point, if you will.
Denzil Mohammed: You brought up making Boston more prosperous, equitable and just. If you had to rank those as to what really guides your research, what would you say is number one?
Trevor Mattos: I would say the question of equity, and I’m using that in a really broad way. Certainly racial equity is a very important part of the work that we do, but economic inequality, in its own right, I think is a big issue in Boston, in our region, in our state. And we are a very wealthy state. So I think I’m interested in more equity. And so it gets back to the shared prosperity as well. I don’t know, how’s that for a ranking? [laughs]
Denzil Mohammed: Sure, I mean, more equitable prosperity!
Trevor Mattos: It’s all very intertwined.
Denzil Mohammed: Exactly. So you’ve been able to see immigration in Boston, but I’m sure you also have a sort of historical perspective on Boston and the Greater Boston region’s immigrants. Who are Boston’s immigrants and how has it changed over the years?
Trevor Mattos: So we have all kinds of different immigrants coming from all parts of the world. Really, really diverse group of people with many different skills and talents and experiences. I can say that looking back several decades, if we were say back in 1990, you’d see top immigrant subgroups in Greater Boston: Canada, Italy and Portugal, more of that former wave of immigration. Whereas more recently, if you look around, what we’re seeing is large and growing immigrant populations from China, from the Dominican Republic, from Brazil. So you can see they’re both different regions, but also sort of spread far and wide as well more recently.
Denzil Mohammed: And one thing that’s unique about Massachusetts is that we don’t have one particular sending country that sort of outnumbers all the others, like the top three or the top five are almost neck and neck: China, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Haiti. So that’s something different as opposed to places like Texas or Florida, where you have Mexicans and Cubans. So from your research, what has been the impact of immigration on Greater Boston or Massachusetts? Has it been positive or negative, and in what areas have you seen this negative or positive impact?
Trevor Mattos: Great question. I would certainly characterize it as positive. That’s my perspective, I think there’s good evidence to support it. If you sort of take a look back, I don’t think Greater Boston has always attracted the highly educated immigrant workforce that it does today, but it certainly does today. And I think this is part of the broader, longer-term changes that we’ve seen in the local economy. The economy of today is vastly different than it was even 15, 20 years ago, let alone if you look further back than that. But I would say, in terms of an impact, one thing that was definitely true then, and it is now as well, is that the vast majority of immigrants, they come to Boston to work hard, they make vital contributions, I would argue, to our communities, they have very high rates of labor force participation, many of them are very highly educated. There’s sort of two different slices, I guess, of our broader immigrant population in the region, and not all are highly educated, but many of them are. And in fact, they are overall, I would say, more highly educated than the U.S. population is, broadly speaking. So including both native and foreign–born, the total U.S. population has a lower rate of higher education than you’d see among immigrants in Greater Boston. So I think that just brings a lot of value. And even immigrants that come with less education are also working in really important industries and occupations. They’re working in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, food, hospitality. These are core sectors of our economy. And when you think about it just on scale, if you think about the state overall, state’s got seven million people in it, I think we’re talking 1.2 million immigrants in the mix. One in six residents of Massachusetts is an immigrant. So you can think about just how critical that is to making our economy function. In terms of other characteristics, other sort of economic impact that immigrants have, there are these trends that you see where when there’s a scarcity of labor, research shows that immigrants are more agile in going to fill open jobs in different regions, different parts of the state, different parts of the country. So we benefit from that. And then another big thing, and this is true in Massachusetts as much as it is anywhere else in the country, and this has to do with our aging population. And so I think immigrants are sort of mitigating the impact of the older, whiter population aging out of the workforce, which of course also brings with it a whole bunch of value.
Denzil Mohammed: I find it fascinating that you talked about low–skilled immigrants in our region’s past. And we think about people who came to New Bedford as fishermen from Portugal. And we also have lower–skilled immigrants today who are cleaning buildings. And we see that, especially during the COVID pandemic, they make up such great proportions, almost half of our agricultural workforce, but they’re also three tenths of our physicians and huge numbers of our home health aides. People seem to forget that low-skilled immigrants have always been attracted to the U.S., as well as high-skilled immigrants, but it’s those people who had their backs against the wall, who didn’t have opportunity, who didn’t have choice back then, whether it was the Irish Potato Famine, whether it was war and genocide, whether it was a Holocaust, whether it was natural disaster that forced them to flee. And another thing you brought up was the nimbleness of immigrants when it comes to work. A lot of people seem to have the perception that, if you make somewhere a sanctuary city, immigrants are going to flock there, and there’s going to be all these negative consequences, or if you have driver’s license for undocumented immigrants, that’s what moves them. No, they go where the jobs are. They go to the poultry factories, they go to the meat packing plants in Nebraska, non-traditional gateway cities. And we’ve always seen that throughout our history, right?
Trevor Mattos: Absolutely. And I would add to that, that there’s I think another misconception, or certainly a debate that’s raged on for quite some time, even amongst the economists that are out there, that has to do with the idea of immigrants going to take the jobs of other deserving, native-born workers. And although some of the econometric, technical parts of that debate seemed to rage on pretty endlessly, I would say that there is a consensus that when immigrants go and they work and they start businesses, that they’re just growing the economy, there’s a multiplier effect here. And so when you really look at things in the aggregate, I think not only is it the case that there’s a good deal of consensus that immigrants aren’t coming to take our jobs, but it’s that, more broadly, they’re adding so much more to the economy. Every dollar that they are spending, every job that they’re creating in their businesses, it just sort of adds extra fuel to the economy, which is so important as well.
Denzil Mohammed: And I want to remind our listeners that in 1910, the foreign-born population of Boston was 36 percent. It’s 28 percent today, but it’s not the highest it’s ever been. So it’s not something that’s as [inaudible] as it has been in Boston’s past. And as we bring up the past, population loss. We recently had census data released and certain states lost congressional seats like California, and others gained like Texas. Massachusetts was able to hold onto all of its congressional seats. Why did that happen? What was responsible for that?
Trevor Mattos: I would certainly point to growth in the immigrant population. I know that the data we’ve crunched shows that since 1990, more than 90 percent of our net population growth has been due to new immigrants coming into our region. So, that just speaks volumes about, you know, could you imagine what would have happened in the absence of that population growth? So I think that’s just huge. And when you look at the specific groups, folks of Latinx origins have among one of the highest rates of growth of any racial group in Greater Boston. At one point back in 1990, we saw them at less than 5 percent of our region’s total population. They’re now pushing 13 percent Asian Americans were, back in 1990, less than 3 percent of our region’s population. Now they’re pushing almost 10 percent. So you see really, really fast growth that as you point out, has been vital for our civic life and our wellbeing in a much broader sense as a state.
Denzil Mohammed: According to researcher David Kalik, no metro city has been able to rebound from the slump in the sixties and seventies without immigration. Not that immigration caused their economic prosperity from the 2000s onward, from 1990 onward, but mostly it hasn’t been able to do it without international migration. That’s a really, really important point. Tell me about what role immigrants play in our workforce, and talk about your experience with immigrants as entrepreneurs.
Trevor Mattos: Absolutely. And just to add a little color behind some of that as well, I would suggest that immigrants, even beyond just the raw economic contributions, which I’ll get into in just a moment, are bringing a level of diversity, there’s ethnic and racial diversity, but there’s also diversity of thought, and I would suggest that that is part of the creativity as well. There’s another linkage there where we see the innovative spirit that you’re getting at. So huge swaths of our frontline workforce that have sustained us all during the pandemic are indeed entrepreneurs. But beyond that, as you mentioned, there’s so much innovation, there’s so much of an entrepreneurial spirit. And we’ve done a little bit of research on this recently at Boston Indicators, and at the very least, I know, to put one number in your mind, that nationally speaking, some of the most recent data suggest that immigrants have a rate of entrepreneurship that is double that of native–born workers. And we see that play out all throughout our region, but I think as we are trying to transition out of this pandemic, as we’re trying to look towards a recovery, these are the job creators, these are the creators of new ideas, really adding so much value.
Denzil Mohammed: So you’re saying that immigrants are JobMakers.
Trevor Mattos: [Laughs] That’s exactly right, yes.
Denzil Mohammed: Dig a little bit deeper into immigrant entrepreneurship. As you said, immigrants are twice as likely to found a business compared to the U.S.-born. Even during the Great Recession, the rate of business generation among immigrants increased, whereas it decreased among the U.S.-born, and I think that points to the nimbleness that you spoke about earlier. They are able to adapt to these changing environments, just because of the fact that they’ve moved to another country, they’ve had to adapt to different laws, different cultures, different languages. And I do also like the idea that you brought about when it comes to diversity. Diversity is a contentious issue for some people as though the U.S. is, and has always been, some sort of homogenous nation, but what’s our favorite fast food? Taco Bell. We are lucky to be able to have Thai food and Mexican food and Chinese food. And that’s just one example of how immigration has enriched the U.S. Italian food, Irish food, German food. Apple pie is not even an American thing, it was brought over here with foreign influences. So the idea of diversity somehow being negative, I think some people probably have fallen into an area where they just are accustomed to it, and they don’t realize the diversity that has made the U.S. what it is. But again, going into entrepreneurship a little bit, can you highlight some areas of Greater Boston or industries that have specifically benefited from immigrants starting businesses?
Trevor Mattos: You see the impact of that entrepreneurial spirit, and even just taking a step back from entrepreneurship, just of the high level of skill that so many immigrants bring. And so I think you’re right to think about Cambridge, to think about the 128 corridor, where you have tech, you have pharmaceuticals, and you have folks coming in with a lot of educational skills, folks that are coming from other countries to gain those skills at our universities, and then, I think in the best case scenario, sticking around to start new companies, and to sort of drive the clusters of innovation that we see in places like Kendall Square in Cambridge. But I think there’s one that hits perhaps a little closer to home for our day in, day out lives, walking up and down the streets, it’s looking more closely at the main street businesses that we go into on a more regular basis, I think shape our day-to-day lives a bit more. And I can think of two examples in Boston. One of them is the neighborhood that I live in, and this is in Jamaica Plain’s Latin Quarter in Hyde Square. The other one is in Dorchester in Field’s Corner. And I think these are two super vibrant examples, two places that have benefited tremendously from immigrant entrepreneurs. And you name I think probably one of our favorite examples, just being the variety of cuisine. I think we are so blessed, certainly in my neighborhood in JP, whether it’s Dominican, Cuban, all kinds of different Latin American restaurants that have cropped up, and then looking over to Field’s Corner, to Savin Hill in Dorchester, seeing all the Vietnamese offerings, but we also happen to have two Ethiopian restaurants just around the corner, and it’s a privilege to be able to enjoy some of those amenities, I would say.
Denzil Mohammed: Ethiopian food in the Latin Quarter, are you serious?
Trevor Mattos: I am so serious about that [laughs]. The Blue Nile, check it out.
Denzil Mohammed: Oh right, I forgot about that! So, given this net economic benefit that you’re talking about, this complementary workforce, this larger than population labor force participation, this great economic benefit that we’ve had, what is your view on what has been happening in the past few years with the federal administration’s dramatic crackdown on legal immigration to the U.S.?
Trevor Mattos: So perhaps unsurprisingly to your listeners, I’m quite critical of the way, certainly the Trump administration, attacked our immigration system at all levels. That isn’t to suggest that other Democratic administrations haven’t been part of the problem in some cases, I would certainly contend that as well. But I think the nature of the actions that the Trump administration took were just kind of on another level. And I think Trump and his allies, they really cut to the core of the legal structures that are in place to serve immigrants, and many of these immigrants were fleeing instability, fleeing violence. And it’s worth saying, perhaps as an aside, that many of the countries, not all, but some of them certainly in Central America, that immigrants are fleeing, you know, we have a large and growing Salvadoran population in Greater Boston, think of Chelsea, East Boston, et cetera. That’s a country that the United States has a long history of involvement with, and I think some of the instability we see today is not at all disconnected from the interventions of the past. The changes that the Trump administration made, many of the times through just executive order, through rule changes, they really completely subverted what had been codified into law, and asylum is one example of this. They basically threw due process out the window when it came to immigrants coming to the Southern border.
Denzil Mohammed: It’s funny that you mentioned U.S. involvement in other countries’ instability, which leads to more immigrants, refugees and asylees from these countries. One word: Afghanistan. And what will our reaction be, particularly in certain parts of the country, about resettling Afghan families who are fleeing what is certainly to be a very devastating Taliban administration? Whether you’re talking about economics, or social issues, or cultural issues, immigration is tied into our communities, our industries, our labor force. So it’s not a separate issue. If you take immigrants out, whether it’s documented or undocumented immigrants, everyone is going to feel the impact. Everyone will suffer. That’s a really important point, and I’m glad that you made it. The lines are blurred, and it’s always been that way, because America has always been a nation that has been founded on the idea of attracting people from other places whose commonality is not their ancestry or their religion, but their desire for freedom and opportunity. Would you agree?
Trevor Mattos: I would, absolutely. Very well said.
Denzil Mohammed: Thank you so much, Trevor Mattos of Boston Indicators, for joining us on JobMakers. It was a real pleasure talking to you.
Trevor Mattos: Yes, thank you so much for having me.
Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contributions produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center of Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s fascinating discussion on how immigrants have enriched Massachusetts. If you know someone we should talk to, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Leave us a review on your favorite streaming service too. I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.
Episode 22: Danielle Goldman
Danielle Goldman joins the podcast to discuss how she helps growing companies connect with in-demand, highly skilled immigrant workers. Through Open Avenues Foundation, Goldman “opens avenues” for the United States to welcome foreign-born innovators and entrepreneurs. Tune in to discover how a well-timed H-1B visa is responsible for a technology that many businesses and families have relied upon during the COVID-19 crisis.
Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: I know, we’re all “Zoomed” out. A year and a half of Zoom classes and meetings and interviews has definitely taken its toll. But ultimately, aren’t we incredibly grateful and lucky to have had this technology in the first place? For our kids, our jobs, our health care, even to see family members we couldn’t visit? But do you know why we were so lucky to have Zoom? Because after getting rejected for a visa eight times, the U.S. finally allowed Eric Yuan from China, Zoom’s founder, to come and stay in the U.S. For Danielle Goldman, co-founder and executive director of the Open Avenues Foundation in Boston, Yuan is an important example of why the U.S. needs to retain the high skill, foreign-born students and workers who benefit from a U.S. higher education. The Open Avenues Foundation developed a unique model that affords high-growth companies and start-ups the chance to retain the talent they need through cap-exempt H1-B visas, no matter where they come from, in highly competitive industries where talent is scarce. This grows our workforce to the benefit of American workers. And, as we saw with Zoom, can create indispensable innovation when we need it most, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers.
Denzil Mohammed: Danielle Goldman, thank you for joining us on JobMakers.
Danielle Goldman: Thanks so much for having me, Denzil.
Denzil Mohammed: Tell us a little bit about the Open Avenues Foundation.
Danielle Goldman: Open Avenues is a non-profit based here in Massachusetts. We were started in 2018 at the height of the Trump administration and everything that was going on with migrant families being separated at the border. I was actually working as a consultant at the time, not in anything immigration related, but I grew up with an immigration attorney as a father and it was a huge part of my life, and so my father and I actually co-founded Open Avenues to change the narrative about immigrants and demonstrate the value of foreign nationals in the United States. We felt like that was a really important story to tell in that moment. Open Avenues is a non-profit that’s actually education-focused, and we are working to demonstrate that foreign nationals can actually train the future workforce. So Open Avenues is a workforce development program, we are really excited about the fellowship that we run and I’m sure we’ll dive into that a bit more in a few minutes, but ultimately, we’re showcasing that foreign nationals in the U.S. are very talented individuals who are working at high-growth companies and can also create jobs for U.S. workers.
Denzil Mohammed: Explain to me that very important point of the value of foreign-born high-skilled workers to the U.S. as a whole.
Danielle Goldman: Open Avenues partners with high-growth companies typically in STEM fields, but we also work with companies in finance and business. Our companies are coming to us. Typically we work with HR professionals who are managing talent acquisition and trying to find ways to fill their talent gaps at the companies and we are a solution for them to retain foreign talent. Our global talent fellowship is a visa solution, it’s a leadership development solution for these foreign nationals, and when I talk to HR representatives the reason why they’re willing to invest right now in foreign talent and nominate them for our global talent fellowship program is because there are talent challenges at these growing companies. They have tens to hundreds of job openings in these technical STEM fields, and even if they don’t have job openings, sometimes they’ve just identified a really extraordinary candidate from outside of the United States. I think one of the things I’ve learned is that people and talent are not just numbers. They’re not just seats that are filled. Companies are looking for the best of the best and when they find them, they will do anything to have them stay in the U.S. and help them grow their companies, and sometimes those individuals are foreign nationals and they need to find ways as an employer to ensure that that those individuals can continue to help them grow their companies.
Denzil Mohammed: You talk about how the challenges of finding talent, the challenges of retaining talent, depending on where they come from, is extraordinary when it comes to our immigration system. Could you just give us a sense of what this work visa is like and how it poses a challenge to companies?
Danielle Goldman: Yeah. It’s really important to understand that our country’s top work visa, the most popular work visa, is called the H-1B, and it is built upon a randomized lottery system. We have hundreds of thousands of international students in the United States right now who are graduating from U.S. universities, they are educated by U.S. professors, they intern at U.S. companies and they’re getting a U.S. education. And when they graduate they are given practical training, optional practical training, from the U.S. government, and that’s one short opportunity they have. And after they finish their practical training the number one, and really for many people the only pathway they have, is to enter into this randomized lottery system which is capped at 85,000 individuals per year. So we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of individuals finishing O.P.T. (optional practical training) every year after receiving a U.S. education and then having to enter a randomized lottery. And hundreds of thousands of individuals are getting shut out. And the only option for some of those individuals is to go home, and that is really challenging and frustrating for companies who have invested in hiring those individuals for a few years during their O.P.T, and it’s really frustrating for the foreign nationals who have received this U.S. education and are willing to invest their talent into U.S. companies. It doesn’t really make sense from that perspective. There are a few organizations that are exempt from this lottery system, they’re called “cap exempt organizations,” and that’s what Open Avenues is. We’re a non-profit that is affiliated with the universities and we are exempt from this cap.
Denzil Mohammed: That’s a really good explanation. You know getting that U.S. education, paying into U.S. universities as an international student, is so much more than in-state tuition. First of all, it’s a lifeline for many schools, and having that talent, growing that talent, and then shutting them out seems to not make a lot of sense. The H-1B has been a very contentious issue for many years I know, but the fact is shutting out talent really is not going to benefit the U.S. and that just seems to be a no-brainer. Tell us a little bit about how your program works, the nuts and bolts of it, and where that inspiration came from.
Danielle Goldman: Sure. So as I started to mention, there are few organizations that are exempt from this H-1B lottery system. Congress deemed these types of institutions exempt because Congress knows the value that these organizations can provide to U.S. society. The four types of organizations are universities, non-profit research institutions, government research institutions, and non-profits that are affiliated or partnered with universities. And Open Avenues is a non-profit that is affiliated with universities. So Open Avenues is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, we actually go into affiliation and sign partnership agreements with our university partners around the United States, and what we do is we’ve built a fellowship program where we’re able to hire global talent who are working at high-growth companies who have been shut out of this lottery system and we are able to hire them for five hours per week of part-time work. And during that time we have them placed at our university partners and they launch career development and STEM education projects for students to train in those fields, get experiential learning and prepare to enter that future workforce. We call this the Global Talent Fellowship because our fellows are international individuals working at high-growth companies. In terms of inspiration, all of this again stems from our mission to demonstrate the value of foreign talent. My co-founder Jeff has a long history of innovation within immigration, he’s very entrepreneurial in the space, he started the Global Entrepreneur in Residence (“GEIR”) program with Governor Deval Patrick back in 2016, which also leverages the cap-exempt H-1B portion of immigration law with universities. And the GEIR program does the same model for universities and is open to founders. Open Avenues Foundation has built a program that leverages the cap exempt H-1B visa but helps mid- to senior-level employees who are critical to the growth of companies stay here in the United States through our fellowship.
Denzil Mohammed: And might I remind our listeners that Zoom was founded by an immigrant, a high-skilled immigrant.
Danielle Goldman: [laughs] Very important point.
Denzil Mohammed: There is a narrative out there that a foreign-trained, foreign-born worker comes in and gets a job, that’s one less job for Americans. Anyone who studies economics knows that the economy is far more complex than that. I want to learn more about some of your fellows and some of their stories. Explain to me, and explain to our listeners, how this benefits the U.S.
Danielle Goldman: Our fellows range from founders of companies, some are mid- to senior-level employees at companies, all of them are owning projects, owning products and building out teams. When they grow their product at a company, or when they conduct their research at a company, what ultimately happens is there is a demand for more talent to support what they develop. It happens with our mid-level scientists who are working at therapeutic companies and developing new technologies or new therapies where their research ultimately leads to more jobs being created. It happens when our founders are able to stay in the United States and ultimately build their companies here and hire talent. So I can tell you through the stories of our fellows, but that’s what ultimately happens, economics aside this is literally happening on the ground in front of me, I have the picture in my head of what is happening, and Open Avenues continues to try to share these stories of the successes of when our fellows stay in the United States, what they are able to build for their companies, which translates to new jobs. And on the other side of what we do, our fellows are training U.S. students to go into their field, so we are also showing that when foreign nationals stay in the United States they are able to contribute to the growth of U.S. students and open jobs for these students. Our fellows are thrilled to contribute to U.S. society and say, ‘we love to be here in the United States, we feel lucky to be growing careers here, and we want to give back.’ They want to ensure that U.S. students at community colleges and technical institutions, these are the schools we’re partnered with by the way, that the students who are from underrepresented communities, from the middle of the country, that those individuals who might not have been exposed to some of these high-growth companies yet are connected through our fellows to these hiring companies. And that is really important for the economic growth in the United States.
Denzil Mohammed: You talk about immigrants as job-makers, that’s such a unique thing to say!
Danielle Goldman: [laughs]
Denzil Mohammed: Immigrants are twice as likely to start a business, we know that they are the ones who are driving the growth of mainstream businesses. If we did not have immigrants we would not have the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, they both had immigrant founders. Tell us another story, as you intimated a moment ago, this idea of these foreign-trained people who study here wanting to give back. That’s a narrative we don’t hear a lot about, either.
Danielle Goldman: Yeah it’s true, we definitely know that that’s the sentiment. You don’t learn about that sentiment of giving back, necessarily, from news articles, right, but when you talk to immigrants and you have conversations with these individuals, these individuals really appreciate the opportunities that they are given in the United States and I find from my conversations that it actually is really exciting for them to be able to also contribute here. It’s how people feel included, by giving back to society and by doing more for others, you actually feel like you are part of that society and not a stranger or on the outside. So our foreign talent love to be part of this of this fellowship and it’s absolutely one of the benefits that foreign talent get when they participate, is that inclusion. And companies know that, that’s part of why companies want their foreign nationals to participate in our program, because it is a major benefit for them.
Danielle Goldman: Regarding some of our stories, we have an amazing cohort of talent. First of all, the companies we partner with are really exciting. I encourage anyone who’s listening to go to our website and take a look, at bottom of our home page we have the 30 logos from our partner companies that are linked to their websites, and we’re just so excited by the growing partnerships. Our partners are working across STEM fields, we are looking for high-growth companies that are focused on some of our biggest challenges in the United States and are also innovating and creating new technologies. We have startup companies that are working on micro-bakeries because COVID really changed the way that we eat, and they’re driven by robots which is just really cool and innovative. We have fellows that are working on cancer therapies for pharmaceutical companies, we have bioinformatics fellows working on A.I. to address precision medicine and questions in precision medicine. One of my favorite stories is from during COVID. We had a fellow working at a company based in Cambridge, it was a company out of MIT Media Lab, it was a 3D printing company and they were able to print materials that were going to be used across industries. One of the industries that they wanted to use these materials for was the medical device industry, but they hadn’t really tapped into the market yet. And then COVID hit, and they had the machines built they had the software ready to go, and what they did was they ended up printing testing swabs, and they started to 3D print these testing swabs. And our fellow was the second employee at this company and led all of the software behind this. He was from Germany, hadn’t won the H-1B lottery, and was going to have to go home. He would have been printing those testing swabs but he would have been doing it somewhere else, because he’s such a brilliant human, and we were so excited to learn that this company, with Yannick our fellow on board, was able to pivot and address something that was so critical to the medical industry at the time and to the United States. And so that was just one story I love about what can happen when these minds and these individuals, this talent, are in the United States and are working for U.S. companies here. Our fellow led projects related to developing the software behind the 3D printing machines with our with our students at our university partners, so he was doing his awesome work and then also letting students know about this awesome work and training them to potentially do that work in the future. And that’s the beauty of this program, it’s not just about the foreign nationals working for these high growth companies, it’s also about them enlightening and empowering students to also solve some of these pressing challenges for the United States.
Denzil Mohammed: Finally Danielle, if you had to succinctly make the case to the American public that high-skill workers who may have been born elsewhere are a net benefit to us, that their presence here is an asset to the country, to American workers, how would you frame that narrative?
Danielle Goldman: The fact that Open Avenues Foundation needs to exist tells us that there is a problem within our current immigration system. It is not helping companies reach the level of talent they need, and retain the talent they need, to thrive. That is a huge problem for the growth of our economy. We need to empower companies to ultimately have the talent they need to grow to their optimal potential, and we’re not there right now. So, foreign nationals are filling these gaps, and more importantly they’re not just filling these gaps, they’re creating new gaps. Foreign nationals, as we talked about, are filling current gaps at U.S. companies that ultimately leads to new growth and new creation of new departments. It’s not a zero-sum game and we need to stop looking at it that way. We need to look at what happens over time through data points. Open Avenues is creating new data points that we can ultimately look at. When our foreign nationals are staying in the United States they are creating new jobs for our U.S. university partners and the students there, so that’s really exciting for us to be able to demonstrate. And ultimately, I’m going to have a much better answer for you, Denzil, because all of the data that we’re collecting is going to change this narrative and be able to show this succinctly, and I’m really excited that in the next few years we’re going to have a lot more data about what our fellows have been able to achieve and how many U.S. students have been placed at these companies.
Denzil Mohammed: And you’re barely three years old as an organization. Danielle Goldman from the Open Avenues Foundation, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers, it was a real pleasure to be enlightened on the kind of work that you’re doing and how important it is to America.
Danielle Goldman: Denzil thanks so much for having me, it was a really important conversation, and I am thrilled to have it.
Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center of Massachusetts, the not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you so much for joining us for this week’s fascinating discussion on how immigrant talent makes a better U.S. if you know someone we should talk to, email Denzil at email@example.com. Leave us a review on your favorite streaming service, too. I’m Denzil Mohammed, join us next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.
Episode 21: James Witte
Director of the Institute for Immigration Research James Witte shares how he uses immigration data, research and stories to combat misinformation and disinformation about immigrants. He also discusses the challenges of communicating accurate, data-based information in the current media ecosystem. Listen to hear an academic’s take on the positive impact of immigrants on the United States.
Episode 20: Sonny Vu
Fleeing Vietnam and coming to the United States as a refugee instilled a strong work ethic and drive to succeed in Sonny Vu. As a serial tech entrepreneur, he has started companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars and created countless jobs. Listen to learn how he strives to create “positive, planet-level impact.” We have a full-length video interview from earlier in his career here.
Episode 19: Shane Smyth
Keeping his five restaurants afloat through the COVID-19 crisis has given Shane Smyth unique insight into the role immigrant entrepreneurs like him play in the restaurant industry. Irish-born Smyth also discusses how immigrants make up one in five food prep and service workers and two in five agricultural workers. We have a full-length video interview here.
Episode 18: Anita Worden
As an English-born immigrant entrepreneur who founded a successful solar company, Anita Worden is passionate about welcoming immigrants and women into the growing renewable energy and tech sector. Listen to the episode to discover how she believes we can shift the narrative on immigration in the United States.
Episode 17: David Kallick
As an economics professor and researcher, David Kallick has studied the many ways that immigrants and refugees contribute to our economy. In this episode of JobMakers, Kallick shares how immigrants revitalize metros, combat economic decline, reverse population loss, create jobs and more. Tune in to hear an academic’s take on the positive impact of immigrants on the United States economy.
Episode 16: Ely Kaplansky
Ely Kaplansky had an unconventional start. Born to parents who met in a concentration camp and moved to the United States for a better life, Kaplansky dropped out of high school before launching Kaplansky Insurance as a young man. Today, Kaplansky Insurance employs 85 employees in 15 offices across Massachusetts. Listen to learn how Kaplansky took advantage of all the freedom and opportunity he discovered in the United States.
Episode 15: Semyon Dukach
Longtime angel investor Semyon Dukach started One Way Ventures to invest in immigrant entrepreneurs after he noticed how well their startups performed. As a refugee from the Soviet Union, he knew the grit and resourcefulness it took to start over somewhere new. Learn how investing in immigrant talent has paid off for Dukach, the immigrant founders and the economy!
Episode 14: Jo Napolitano
Jo Napolitano believes that giving immigrant and refugee students access to a good education is both the most moral and the most practical choice. Drawing on her own experiences as an immigrant and her years of reporting, she discusses the unlocked potential of foreign-born students. Tune in to also discover what she learned reporting on students at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Episode 13: Umesh Bhuju
Umesh Bhuju’s exposure to child labor as a young person in Nepal inspired his current investment in fair trade practices. His coffee shop ensures that their products come from well-paid farmers using environmentally sustainable practices. Listen to discover how Bhuju is combating food insecurity during the pandemic even as his business faces challenges. We also have a full-length video interview here.
Episode 12: Babak Movassaghi
Navigating his identity as a German-Iranian-American pursuing the American Dream has given Dr. Babak Movassaghi the flexibility and creativity to reinvent himself several times. Whether he’s obtaining a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, captaining the German NFL football team or founding a company that revolutionizes telehealth, Movassaghi has used an immigrant mindset to thrive. Tune in to find out how his company has kept people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic with its telehealth platform.
Episode 11: Jitka Borowick
Jitka Borowick, an immigrant entrepreneur from the Czech Republic, initially intended to spend just one year in the United States to learn English. She ended up moving to the United States permanently and founded Cleangreen, a cleaning service committed to environmentally-friendly practices, and Nove Yoga. Listen to learn about her difficulties learning another language and culture, her pathway to entrepreneurship and her courageous decision to open a new business during a pandemic.
Episode 10: Josh Feast
Josh Feast, an immigrant entrepreneur from New Zealand, has a goal anyone could get behind: make the call center experience better for everyone. In the latest JobMakers episode, he explains how he’s using AI to make it happen and creating over 200 jobs in the process. Listen to discover his perspective on ethics in the AI sector, what inspired him to enter the field and why he thinks “diversity defines America.”
Episode 9: Mahmud Jafri
When Mahmud Jafri first came to the United States from Pakistan, he hit a “concrete ceiling” in the corporate world. He turned to entrepreneurship and started a business selling imported hand-knotted rugs. Through his business, Dover Rugs and Home, Jafri is creating opportunities in Massachusetts and for women artisans abroad. Learn how he believes integrating immigrants can benefit all U.S. residents! We also have a full-length video interview here.
Episode 8: Larry O’Toole
Larry O’Toole has run his company, Gentle Giants Moving Company, for more than 40 years. He’s determined to ensure that all immigrants have the same opportunities that he did to fully participate in the economy and build something that will endure. That’s why he’s joined a group that promotes state and federal policies that foster complete economic integration of foreign-born talent and sustained prosperity for everyone. Listen to our interview to discover how he overcame the challenges of culture shock and discovered his untraditional path into entrepreneurship.
Episode 7: Amar Sawhney
Amar Sawhney turned his initial struggles to find work after immigrating to the United States from India into motivation to pursue a PhD and become a serial entrepreneur. He has started eight companies, creating more than 4,000 jobs and $2 billion in revenue. Listen to our interview to discover how he overcame obstacles along the way, his perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic and what he wants people to know about Sikh Americans. We also have a full-length video interview from earlier in his entrepreneurship journey here.
Episode 6: Max Faingezicht
Max Faingezicht’s Costa Rican background has helped him build a successful business connecting United States companies with remote software engineers in Latin America. His work has helped foster entrepreneurship in Costa Rica, bring valuable talent to U.S.-based companies and reshape the future of work at a time when remote work is booming. Learn what inspired his journey! We also have a full-length video interview here.
Episode 5: Hilda Torres
When she immigrated from Mexico, Hilda Torres found that making a living in the United States would be more difficult than she had been told. She rallied and started a multilingual daycare that quickly became one of the most successful businesses in her city. Learn how she used grit and education to make her mark! We also have a full-length video interview here.
Episode 4: Hong Tran
As a child fleeing Vietnam, Tran lost much of his family in a pirate attack. He rebuilt his life in the United States and founded a series of businesses, including a chain of laundromats, a liquor store, a real estate business and a law firm. Learn about how he overcame extraordinary adversity and what he thinks about the surge in anti-AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) hate during the pandemic. We also have a full-length video interview here.
Episode 3: Sandro Catanzaro
Catanzaro came to the United States from Peru planning to become an engineer, but he dreamed of starting his own business. In the end he did both, founding DataXu and developing technology that helped send NASA to Mars, among many other applications. Discover how he has navigated the world of tech as an immigrant entrepreneur. We also have a full-length video interview here.
Episode 2: Christina Qi
Receiving government benefits gave Qi’s Chinese American family the stability she needed as a child to eventually make it to MIT. While in college, a bad Wall Street internship experience inspired her to start her own hedge fund out of her dorm room. Learn more about how Qi paved her own path in an industry that’s often inhospitable to women of color.
Episode 1: Herby Duverné
Duverné struggled when he first came to the United States from Haiti while speaking little English. He always had an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to keep others safe. Learn how he combined these impulses into Windwalker Group, a cybersecurity company that employs more than 100 people. We also have a full-length video interview here.