Addressing Misconceptions About Immigrants

 -  12/19/12

U.S. Chamber of Commerce official Randel Johnson outlines major issues facing immigrants and how to move the discussion forward.

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.

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