Addressing Misconceptions About Immigrants

As the senior vice president of labor immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Randel Johnson lobbies for legislative changes and workforce integration to help immigrant job seekers. In October, Johnson received the Outstanding Leadership Award from Upwardly Global, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants rebuild their professional careers in the U.S. Johnson discusses what drew him to advocating for immigrant issues as well as misperceptions about immigrants in the workplace.

What first drew you to immigrant issues?
Actually, it goes back to about 1969 when I was hopping freight trains with a friend in Southern California. We got off and started hitchhiking, but no one would pick us up for hours and hours. Then a battered pickup truck pulled over and offered us a ride. It was owned by a Hispanic gentleman loaded with a wife and two kids, and the family was clearly down on their luck. We jumped in the back and rode into San Diego; at the end of the ride, the man gave us $10 to help with our journey — real money back then. When I started doing immigration on Capitol Hill and here at the chamber, and then with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, I always remember the kindness and help that man extended us, and it helps me keep the interests of our country’s newcomers in mind.

Part of your work with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce involves oversight of immigration issues in the workplace. Immigration was a hot topic in the November election. Does the public have a misperception about immigration, and more specifically, immigrants?
Yes, which is why we have held many events here showcasing the achievement of immigrants and issuing a “Myths and Facts” report, debunking in detail the most insidious claims about immigrants. However, I think the worst myth is that immigrants do not wish to learn English and become part of the American fabric. This misunderstanding tends to drive, in my view, much of the restrictionist views on immigration.

How can immigrants work to change those perceptions?
Frankly, I’m not sure, except to continue to work hard and contribute to the American economy and societal fabric. Certainly there is always room for more of a megaphone to spread the word about these accomplishments, but that costs money. One of the most encouraging developments I think is the growing political involvement of Latinos and other immigrants in politics where the platform is created through grassroots initiatives. This will take time, but it is clearly happening.

You have championed research on the advantages for businesses that hire immigrants. What are those advantages?
Through our own research and analysis of the research of others, we now understand that immigrants are complementing our U.S. workforce, not displacing it. For example, one of our member companies, Microsoft, has found that for every H-1B worker, [on a temporary visa] they hire, they add, on average, four additional employees to support them in various capacities. As we have made it a priority as a nation for our workers to move into higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs, immigrant workers are filling the gap by taking many manual labor jobs that U.S. workers are avoiding.

Looking to the future, what do you see as the major issues facing immigrants?
For the lower-skilled, the primary issue is the obvious one and the most important: learning English. This does not mean that America should exclude other languages from our official documents; it simply recognizes the reality that English is the key to moving up. Obviously, a commitment to working hard and pursuing higher education are also critical, but learning English remains the linchpin, in my view. For the undocumented, the DREAMers being the most obvious and sympathetic example, the greatest challenge is achieving legalization.

High-skilled immigrants do not typically have this challenge. There we need to collectively demonstrate that their contributions expand the American pie (as do the low-skilled) and revise our immigration system to free up additional green cards to allow these individuals to stay in the country.

How can you at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the country in general, be more proactive in dealing with these forthcoming immigration issues?
We are doing the spade work on Capitol Hill, but more needs to be done beyond the Beltway to educate the rest of America on the benefits of immigration and to rebut the unfortunate stereotypes.

Jeffrey Cattel is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.