What refugees and immigrants can bring to our communities

October 16, 2018 6:10 am

Biak Tling, (front row, in blue hat), stands to the immediate left of Patrick Braford, owner of Global Painting, a Richmond business, with the rest of the company’s team. All except Braford are immigrants.

When my wife and I started attending Tabernacle Baptist Church in Richmond, we were impressed by the diverse congregation.

Nearly a third of our members are refugees.

I become friends with a Burmese refugee named Biak Tling, an experienced carpenter in his home country whose first job in Richmond was in a commercial kitchen.

We were both looking for ways to bring in extra cash, so we painted a few houses on the side. I saw an opportunity to build a painting business by combining our past experience and skill, and I asked Biak to join me. In 2013, I founded Global Painting with him as my foreman.

I’m so glad we teamed up. With his years of experience and natural-born leadership, Biak helped me build my business from the ground up. Today, we have seven full-time painters who hail from Burma and Burundi and range in age from 26 to 46. Since they’ve been working for me, several have received promotions, two have become homeowners and at least five welcomed American-born children into their families.

The ability of refugees in our city to seize the American dream is one of the reasons Richmond received high scores in New American Economy’s new Cities Index, an interactive tool that measures how effectively the largest 100 U.S. cities are integrating immigrants.

We ranked especially well in the categories of government leadership, community and economic prosperity. Of course, there is still room for growth in certain areas, like when it comes to job opportunities.

We have more than 2,000 refugees and roughly 94,500 immigrants in Richmond, and still our unemployment rate is a mere 3.1 percent, .8 percent lower than the national rate.

Over 90 percent of our foreign-born residents are employed, according to the index. Between high-skilled workers in our STEM sector, and those like my painting team, who work physical jobs, immigrants and refugees here paid more than $883 million in taxes and held $2.1 billion in spending power in 2014.

They boast a high median income and low poverty rate, according to the index. And they are self-sufficient, with large numbers who do not rely on food stamps and welfare.

These are all good things, but these newcomers could be doing even more for themselves and our economy if there weren’t roadblocks in place.

They come here with degrees and experience, but wind up woefully underemployed simply because they don’t have access to resources that ensure their skills translate to the American job market. Taking a doctor, an electrician, a carpenter from another county and asking them to cut chicken parts or push shopping carts is not where the United States gains the most value.

Biak’s previous job was fine, but it wasn’t until he helped me start Global Paining that he was able to truly flourish. Which is what has ensured my own success.

It’s proof that when we pull together for the collective good of our city anything is possible.

Editor’s note: This op-ed was submitted by Braford in conjunction with New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization that says it is “fighting for smart federal, state and local immigration policies” to grow the economy and create jobs. The views of our opinion contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Virginia Mercury. 

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