With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on our economy and public health systems, President Donald Trump turned to his old playbook: changing the narrative and attacking immigrants.
We shouldn’t take the bait.
Trump’s policies have separated children from their parents, jeopardized the future for hard-working Dreamers, forced vulnerable families to endure greater hardship through the “public charge” rule and cut refugee admissions to a historic low – at a time when 70 million people are displaced around the globe.
We have been mocked and scapegoated by the leader of the free world, who even went so far as to remove “a nation of immigrants” from the mission statement of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
But as COVID-19 reached our shores, one thing has become clear – it’s immigrants that are on the front lines in our health care system, in our factories and in our farms.
During nightly newscasts, Americans now see images of immigrants courageously risking their own lives to help everyone else’s. From the nurse facing deportation who is working nonstop to treat patients in a coronavirus hotspot, to the refugees who kept showing up at Smithfield pork factory in South Dakota so we all are fed, to the doctors, farmworkers, researchers, home-care aides, delivery truck drivers and many others who are in harm’s way, the contributions of immigrants are front and center.
And yet none of this is new.
Immigrants were keeping America’s health care system afloat before the coronavirus. Thirty percent of the country’s resident physicians are foreign-born and nearly 30 percent of physicians and surgeons are foreign-born. As a recent piece in Vox noted: “The US was projected to face a shortage of doctors before the pandemic hit: The Association of American Medical Colleges had estimated that it could reach 46,900 to 121,900 physicians by 2032. And in rural areas, particularly in states such as Mississippi and Arkansas, doctors were already in short supply.”
It goes beyond treating the sick and researching a coronavirus cure. According to the National Immigration Forum, immigrants account for 35 percent of building maintenance and grounds cleaning workers, while about 75 percent of farm workers and nearly half of dairy farmers are foreign-born. That means, there’s a good chance the person picking your food, preparing it, delivering it to the supermarket, and cleaning that supermarket was born in another country.
Then there’s our long-term economic competitiveness.
Amid mass layoffs due to COVID-19, the $2 trillion stimulus package is a laudable attempt to get much-needed relief to families and businesses (not surprisingly, the stimulus leaves out many immigrants). But there’s another way to jumpstart the economy: by leveraging immigrants and refugees. Almost half of America’s Fortune 500 companies – contributing $16 trillion in 2018 revenue – were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants, including iconic brands like Amazon, Alphabet and Apple.
People who are foreign-born are twice as likely to launch a company than someone who is U.S.-born. I am just one example: Born in Palestine and raised in Saudi Arabia by refugee parents, I came to the United States and started and sold multiple businesses, and invested early in dozens of others including Tesla, Uber and Lyft.
After COVID-19 passes, our country will still face a ticking, demographic time-bomb. We are becoming older and birth rates are declining. That means less dynamism in the economy, a less robust workforce, and less economic growth. The solution is more immigrants and refugees who want to work hard and add to our economy.
Of course, as we battle an invisible enemy, we must maintain our defenses here and around the world. For more than two centuries immigrants have been doing just that. They fought in the Revolutionary War, and they are a big reason the Union was saved during the Civil War – 20 percent of Union soldiers were foreign-born. From victories in World War I and World War II, through all the conflicts we’re engaged in today, immigrants have fought to defend America. More than half a million veterans are foreign-born.
We’re in a challenging moment, with difficult days ahead of us. COVID-19 is disproportionately hitting those with the least resources, including people of color and immigrants.
But when we do get through this, we’ll be able to retell the story of America as a country built by fearless, men and women seeking a new beginning for themselves and their families. We’ll remind the world that, especially in a time of crisis, America remains a “nation of immigrants.”
Ibrahim AlHusseini is founder and CEO of FullCycle, an investment firm harnessing proven technologies that accelerate solutions to the climate crisis, and was an early investor in Tesla Inc.
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