I will never forget the look of fear and confusion on the faces of moms and dads, children and single young adults, trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. They sought opportunity, yet faced an outdated immigration system — one that threatened the emotional and physical well-being of residents in communities across the country, and the need for immigrant labor and expertise vital to local economies.
I witnessed our broken immigration system firsthand in September 2019 when I traveled with county mayors and commissioners from across the nation to our southern border in El Paso, Texas. I was hoping to better understand issues that impact our county, comprised of an estimated 18.6% Hispanic/Latino population. What I learned during that short trip was eye-opening, emotional and informative, and it reinforced how Salt Lake County has long been on the right track advocating for immigration reform.
Since its establishment in 2016, the Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office for New Americans has worked to improve the lives of immigrants in the county, and during the coronavirus pandemic, has been critical in providing timely guidance and information to vulnerable immigrant populations. Our United for Citizenship initiative helps to prepare eligible immigrants for the naturalization process, and our Welcoming Salt Lake initiative uplifts the cultural contributions and stories of our newcomers.
These efforts are consistent with Utah’s tradition of not only accepting refugees, with 65,000 having resettled in our state since 1980, but offering stronger case management support and services in order to integrate them into our communities.
In Salt Lake County, we have proven that the vision of proactive immigrant inclusion makes communities stronger. And now, we finally have an ally in Washington who sees immigration through the same, humane lens.
The Biden administration and members of Congress have recently put forth a flurry of proposals to reform our nation’s immigration system. The proposals address a range of important issue, like creating a task force to reunite children who were separated from their families at the border, how the U.S. apportions employment and family-based visas, and whether undocumented immigrants living in and contributing to our communities can attain legal status and eventually become citizens.
But the federal government would be remiss to address the admission and legalization of immigrants without giving equal consideration to the proactive integration and inclusion of newcomers into the fabric of America. Successful immigrant inclusion involves the removal of barriers to the economic and civic participation of foreign-born populations in our society, and no entity is better positioned than the federal government to coordinate and catalyze ongoing inclusion efforts taking place in Salt Lake County and in communities across the country.
In addition, the New Deal for New Americans Act presents a blueprint for transformative federal leadership on immigrant inclusion. Introduced by Sen. Markey and Rep. Meng in the 117th Congress, the bill would establish at the federal level the infrastructure and policies needed for successful inclusion, including a National Office of New Americans to coordinate policymaking related to immigrants across federal agencies, grant programs to support local efforts to remove workforce, English-access and legal services barriers commonly faced by immigrants, and measures to ensure that individuals eligible for citizenship are able to naturalize in a timely and affordable manner.
These efforts to proactively include immigrants into our communities, which are taking place in many other jurisdictions in all corners of the U.S., are a sensible and forward-looking response to the continued growth of America’s foreign-born population. Today, more than 44 million newcomers contribute daily to the prosperity and diversity of our country, and more than 12% of Salt Lake County’s population is foreign-born.
The tide is turning, there is hope of ending the humanitarian crisis at our border. Federal efforts to bolster the inclusion of immigrant communities complement and strengthen Salt Lake County’s ongoing work, and will help ensure that everyone has a chance to thrive and purse the American Dream.
Jenny Wilson is the mayor of Salt Lake County.