On behalf of the Immigration Reform Roundtable of the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad, we want to be sure that people are aware that a significant piece of legislation, HB 540, has failed to advance in the General Assembly.
HB 540 was co-sponsored by four state representatives from the Triad — Pricey Harrison, Jon Hardister, Amos Quick and Cecil Brockman. Had it become law, it would have been a giant step toward substantial improvement in the lives of thousands of refugees and immigrants living in North Carolina. But, like many other pieces of forward-looking legislation introduced in North Carolina these days, it failed to even come up for vote.
This was a lost opportunity that will hurt the state economically and socially.
HB 540 is not a very ambitious bill. It would have kick-started a study of the opportunities and obstacles involved in workforce development for refugees, holders of special immigrant visas (SIVs) and those newcomers who have been granted asylum. But the legislature has shelved the bill.
Why do we feel that this is such a sad situation? Because we are a nation of immigrants that is increasingly turning its back on immigrants.
Newcomers have always made — and continue to make — significant contributions to the local, state and national economies. The impact would be even greater if qualified immigrants and refugees did not face obstacles in getting the jobs that they have the skills to perform. To support their families, many take whatever jobs they can find. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed clearly how dependent our communities are on these individuals, many of whom are essential workers in health care, farming and service industries (to name a few).
Although we withhold names to protect privacy, here are two examples:
There is our friend from Iraq who has a Bachelor of Science degree in computer engineering and worked as a corporate service assistant at the British Embassy. Now she is working as a dog groomer. And there is a former refugee from Sudan who has a Bachelor of Science in zoology and worked as a lab technician before being resettled. Even with her diploma, she has had trouble getting a job in her field and is working as a packer at a clothing distribution warehouse.
There is no success story more central to the history of our country than the economic, social, and cultural contributions made by immigrants and refugees. HB 540 could have gathered the evidence and:
Enumerated the knowledge and skills that newcomers bring to North Carolina.
Identified the barriers that prevent many newcomers from finding meaningful employment.
Quantified, in the wording of the proposed bill itself, “the extent to which the underemployment of refugees, SIV holders, and asylees deprives North Carolina’s economy of millions of dollars.”
We now have a choice. We can replay the recurring pattern of fear and exclusion, and continue to squander the vast economic potential of this cohort, or we can pursue a better path toward creating economic opportunities for the newcomers and our communities.
Hopefully, the General Assembly will take up HB 540 again in the next session.
Adamou Mohamed is associate director of grassroots organizing for Church World Service. Gary Kenton serves on the Board of Directors of the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina.