As the 2020 presidential election season heats up, the White House continues to make immigration a controversial issue. That’s because national demographics are changing in ways that make some politicians uneasy. The country’s immigrant population is growing faster than the American-born one and are now 21.2 million eligible voters—a million more than in 2016.
Of course, here in Brownsville, immigration isn’t partisan; it’s a fact of life. Nearly 1 in 4 residents were born in another country and over 32 percent are eligible to vote, according to New Americans in Cameron County, a recent study by New American Economy. For us, that’s a matter of pride, especially in these challenging times. Immigrants are not only getting us through the pandemic, but they will be crucial to our recovery. As November 3 approaches, it’s something I hope all Americans will remember.
As essential workers, 13.2 million immigrants nationwide are risking their lives to maintain key services and keep us healthy. Here in Cameron County, one third of healthcare workers and 34 percent of our food service workers are immigrants. The Brownsville Public Health Department, where I work, is doing everything we can to keep them safe: providing all of our public health information in both English and Spanish, going house to house in Hispanic neighborhoods to pass out gloves, hand sanitizer, and bilingual information packets, and conducting regular inspections at restaurants and retail stores to protect employees.
The city has also made small business assistance a focus. After the Great Recession, when the nation struggled to create jobs, immigrants were more than twice as likely to start a new business as native-born Americans, according to a 2012 study by NAE. Since more than 10,000 of Cameron County’s immigrants are entrepreneurs, Brownsville established a StartUp Texas COVID-19 Relief Grant Fund to support them. One recipient was Dr. Hansheng Lei, who came to the U.S. from China in the early 2000s and teaches at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He used the money to launch America Care, which manufactures disposable face masks. Cities with even small to moderate immigrant populations would do well to follow our lead.
My work with the Public Health Department puts me in touch with local business owners and workers every day. But I am also strongly connected to this community as a Latina woman and second-generation immigrant. For many years, my father lived across the border in Matamoros, Mexico with his family, then moved to the U.S. nearly 50 years ago as a young man to attend school in Brownsville. Many of his friends and family crossed the International Bridge to the U.S. every day for work. Like them, many of our residents today still have lives on both sides of the border.
In the past 30 years, our population has more than doubled, and our diverse industries continue to generate jobs in manufacturing, agriculture, government, education, and aerospace technology. We also have the Port of Brownsville, which has generated 51,000 jobs and $3 billion in annual state economic activity. Our multicultural, open-minded approach has enabled these businesses to thrive. After all, when immigrants come here searching for a better life, their hard work lasts for generations. My maternal grandmother, who came here from Mexico in the 1950s, worked in the fields picking cotton and produce. Her efforts allowed my mom, who was born in the U.S., to get an education and become a teacher’s aide, working with Brownsville public schools for more than 20 years. My father is the hardest worker I know. As a young man, he worked odd jobs in retail and restaurants, often holding two or three jobs at a time. In his 20s, he was hired by the City of Brownsville, and worked his way up to health director. Today, he’s a health director for the City of Harlingen. He always told me, “whatever you do, be the best at it.”
I took his advice to heart and studied biology at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi and at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. As a student I worked at a halfway house in Brownsville, helping former inmates find jobs and reenter society, before joining the public health department after graduation. I feel proud to be contributing my skills to fighting this pandemic. Immigrants like my father and grandmother, and second-generation Americans like me, have always been a part of Brownsville’s history. Now, more than ever, they are a vital part of its future. That’s true for many communities around the country. Let’s welcome and support their contributions as much as we do the hard work of their American-born neighbors. If we do, we will persevere.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Amanda Ramirez, an ordinance enforcement officer with the City of Brownsville’s Public Health Department. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with the permission of the author. Ramirez can be reached via: [email protected]
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