Boston’s Economy Urgently Needs Immigrants in Order to Thrive

Opinion

I grew up in Guyana in the 1970s, where political turmoil gripped the country and water outages and power blackouts were frequent. When I was 11, our family came to America, and I remember being dazzled by the lights, the buildings, and the planes at New York’s Kennedy airport. Even an airport escalator amazed me — I’d never seen a moving staircase before. If people could work together to build such wonderful things, I thought, there was no limit to the world’s possibilities.

We came here with almost nothing, but thanks to my parents’ determination, the help of several amazing public school teachers, and a fair amount of luck, I was able to attend Stanford University. After graduating, I went on to a career with tech giants including IBM and HP. Today, I am CEO of Carbonite, the Boston-based data protection company employing 1,000 people. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, but acutely aware that America has given me opportunities I would never have had in Guyana, and I never forget that many of the kids I knew back in Guyana are still there, working low-paid jobs to make ends meet. That’s not because I’m better than them — it’s because I got lucky, came to America, and got the support I needed to earn an education that allows me to contribute to the American economy and create jobs.

I was so proud to see Boston receive high scores in the recent Cities Index report from New American Economy — an assessment of how America’s 100 largest cities are helping immigrants to succeed. We received perfect scores in government support for immigrants, economic empowerment such as vocational training and entrepreneurship programs, and legal support. We also received a high score in livability, which includes the immigrant home ownership rate and their educational attainment.

This is not surprising. The Massachusetts tech economy is highly dependent on immigrants: we comprise 15.6 percent of the population of our state, but are 26.6 percent of our STEM workers, and 36 percent of our STEM PhD graduates. And a thriving tech sector is good for everyone: NAE estimates that if even half of our PhD graduates could secure visas to work in Massachusetts after graduation, they’d create at least 4,700 new jobs for our state’s American workers by 2021.

Our ability to recruit and retain the best and brightest people is vital to our industry, and to Boston’s economy. Our city’s leaders understand that, and Mayor Walsh – himself the son of Irish immigrants – has been a real champion of the city’s foreign-born population, creating programs that have helped almost 10,000 immigrant residents. Our business community has rallied together, too, with the Mass Technology Leadership Council pushing for more constructive immigration policies at the federal level, and more welcoming and supportive programs at the city and state level.

It’s hard to overstate how important that kind of support is, not just for immigrants, but also for companies looking to expand in the Boston area. In the tech industry, especially, immigration policy shapes many corporate decisions. Look, for instance, at Microsoft, which founded a development center in Vancouver in 2007 specifically to host workers excluded by U.S. immigration rules. (That’s been great for Vancouver; the city’s tech payroll has increased 27 percent over the past decade.) Amazon, too, has given major weight to immigration issues as it decided where to build its second headquarters. And at Carbonite, where one in ten of our workers are foreign-born, we’ve had to hold all-hands meetings to discuss the travel ban, and to reassure current employees, many of whom graduated from local Massachusetts universities, that we’ll find places for them at our offices in Germany and Canada if current immigration policies push them out of our country.

Boston’s ability to support new immigrants — from coders to construction workers — is a key part of what makes our city competitive, both when it comes to attracting investment from U.S. companies and succeeding in the global marketplace. Federal programs like the travel ban and policies that send graduates from our universities back to their countries to build their economies, are doing real harm to our country and to our city. That’s why now more than ever, we all — as business leaders, as politicians, as Bostonians — need to speak up for immigrants, nurture their talents, and show them that we still remember how vital they are to our city’s success, and to our country’s future.

Mohamad Ali is President & CEO of Carbonite. Follow @Carbonite

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