Event celebrates Michiana's immigrants as population growth drivers who enrich community
Immigration. It continues to be one of the nation’s most divisive issues. We’re a nation of immigrants, after all, but it must be done the legal way, many say.
Thursday evening at the St. Joe County Public Library downtown South Bend, a group of nonprofit and government leaders gathered to celebrate this area’s immigrants, however they arrived.
They presented data from a new report that underscores the economic value that immigrants create in the area, as well as a plan to make immigrants, as drivers of population growth, feel welcome.
The evening culminated a year of work by a group that included the city administration, South Bend-Elkhart Regional Partnership, Welcoming Michiana, and United Religious Community. They were one of 10 metro areas nationally that won competitive grants from Gateways for Growth, a collaboration between the American Immigration Council and Welcoming America.
Among the report’s findings: Nearly 90% of the population growth in the county and South Bend from 2014-2019 resulted from immigration.
“That’s striking as we think about, how were we a growing, thriving city a century ago?” said Mayor James Mueller. “We know that new residents were critical in our rise then, and we know that we’re going to need more new residents in the future as we look to continue our growth and build many, many jobs that people are coming in here and investing in our region.”
The report also found that in 2019, in the city of South Bend, immigrants held 9.3 percent of all spending power but made up only 7.8 percent of the population. Immigrants contributed 10.1 percent, or $686.4 million, of the city’s Gross Domestic Product.
In a panel discussion, three immigrants shared their positive experiences in Michiana: Juan Constantino, executive director of La Casa De Amistad; Rose Alyousif, an IUSB faculty member; and Mark Spence, an executive at Lakeville-based Hoosier Racing Tire.
Constantino said when he was two, his father left the family in Mexico and came to Elkhart to work in an RV factory, sending money home. But after three years, the family joined him.
“Hired a coyote, emigrated and crossed the border without documentation from Mexico to the United States,” Constantino said.
His parents later separated. His mother was working three jobs and spoke no English. It might have been easier for her to return to Mexico, but she saw more opportunities here for her children.
“My mother chose to stay. I’m thankful she did and for every sacrifice she did up until now and continues to do for myself and my siblings.”
Alyousif was a physician in her native Iraq when she left the country as a refugee in 2013 because of the war. She first came to South Bend but quickly left because she couldn’t find a sense of belonging. Angry that her medical license wouldn’t transfer, she worked retail jobs and isolated herself socially. But she later returned and became an instructor at IUSB. This time she decided to try harder to assimilate into American culture.
“This decision helped me a lot,” she said. “I was able to find belonging. I was able to participate and achieve success.”
Spence decided to emigrate here from South Africa to find more services for his son’s autism.
“There’s no benefit, there’s no social support, for anything, let’s call it, from the government side in South Africa, for that type of disability,” Spence said. “So we knew that coming to the U.S. would be a blessing for us.”
Responding to a question about how they marked success as immigrants, Constantino spoke of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, a President Obama initiative that protects people who emigrated here as children from deportation.
“It allowed me to get a Social Security number, it allowed me to get authorization to work, it allowed me to get a driver’s license, and to simply be able to exist in this country that I call home for these last 25 years of my life. So this is my home, but this is also a country where I don’t hold legal status.”