By Unni Kirandumkara
This month, Americans began the process of selecting the next president of the United States. The Iowa caucuses kicked off Feb. 3, and Super Tuesday will be here before we know it. As Virginians consider who to vote for, we need to start thinking smarter about immigration. That’s especially true in Richmond, where the number of foreign-born voters is growing and the role these voters play in our local economy becomes increasingly vital. In short, the fearmongering we’ve heard over the last four years is not going to fly with voters in 2020.
We need to distinguish fact from fiction. President Donald Trump has called immigrants “criminals” and “rapists” and referred to migration as “an invasion.” Richmond shows something quite different. In 2017, the local immigrant entrepreneur population grew by more than 58 percent, according to a recent study by New American Economy. In fact, immigrants in Richmond are 106.8 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs than our U.S.-born neighbors. They are also significant players in our city’s booming tech industry. We’re adding tech jobs at a faster rate than almost any other city in the United States, but we’re also facing a shortage of qualified workers. In 2015, there were nearly 22 STEM jobs advertised in Virginia for every available worker.
Richmond’s immigrant population is helping to bridge that gap; 11.4 percent are employed in local professional, scientific and technical services jobs.
I am one of these — both a foreign-born tech worker and an entrepreneur. Originally from India, I spent two decades here building my career in technology. For years, I ran data management projects for the federal government, including the Department of Defense. During that time, I realized that companies needed a better way to securely consolidate, store and collaborate on files in the cloud. In 2002, I built an application for web browsers that encrypts and archives files securely and launched my company, OOAC, around it. We specialize in content management software development and consulting on cybersecurity. Today, our team includes six people who work with clients across two states.
Of course, immigrants benefit Richmond outside the tech sector. We were just 7.6 percent of the local population in 2017, but we paid $1.1 billion in state, local and federal taxes and held $2.9 billion in spending power, according to New American Economy. And since then, even more immigrants are calling Virginia home; between 2017 and 2018, the state’s overall immigrant population grew by 1.3 percent, compared to .5 percent growth of the U.S.-born population.
Candidates should take note of this, especially because that growth means more foreign-born voters. Since Trump took office in 2017, the number of foreign-born Virginians who are eligible to vote has grown by 18,000 people, bringing the total to more than 534,000 immigrant voters across the state, according to NAE.
Richmond has given me so much. It’s where I’ve raised my two sons, where my wife and I have built our careers, and where I launched my own business. And I’m proud to be more than a singular anecdote. The data shows that I am representative of a foreign-born community that loves this city and wants to see it succeed. Those are the facts, and the facts are what political candidates should be focusing on this election year.
Unni Kirandumkara is the founder of OOAC, ACVITS LAW, a secure content management service for businesses