As he usually does these days, Representative Joe Kennedy III drew a crowd in Needham on Tuesday morning. But the nearly 150 people who packed a conference room at TripAdvisor’s headquarters weren’t here for the latest on his possible Senate challenge.
Instead, the event hosted by the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber was dedicated to immigration, and Kennedy was but one of the speakers. Another was Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. For her, the chamber event was an opportunity to recruit more foot soldiers to her cause: the Massachusetts Business Immigration Coalition.
Millona launched the initiative a year ago to gather sympathetic voices from the business community. She has already met with chambers in Worcester and Fall River, asking for support. But this isn’t just an issue for urban communities. Employers in the suburbs also worry about finding and retaining enough workers, as evidenced by the turnout in Needham.
Millona initially wanted at least 200 members to climb on board, an ambitious number. For now, she is falling short: The coalition is up to 70 members, most paying $5,000 in annual dues. Millona remains hopeful she can hit her goal by this time next year.
Boston developer Tom O’Brien was among the first to raise his hand, and now he cochairs the coalition with Millona. He is motivated in part because his family includes five kids adopted from other countries.
But O’Brien also looks at the broader implications to the country’s economic competitiveness: He worries the Trump administration’s restrictive policies will hurt the United States brand overseas, potentially discouraging the next generation of bright entrepreneurs from coming here.
Kennedy made similar points. The Newton Democrat — and no, he did not get into his will-he-or-won’t-he Senate deliberations — asked the chamber members for help in making the case in Washington, to fix a badly broken immigration system that’s holding back the economy.
When Millona launched the coalition a year ago, the focus seemed to be on federal policy. Millona rattled off a few figures along those lines Tuesday: 12,000 people in the state face deportation as soon as January due to an end of “Temporary Protected Status” protections, and 6,000 Massachusetts “Dreamers” are at risk — these are undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children. Denial rates are skyrocketing in the H-1B visa program used by tech companies, she says, and work permits are ending for the spouses of H-1B visa holders. (Critics say the H-1B program is used too often by employers to find cheaper sources of labor.)
But Millona wants to marshal business forces for state legislation as well. For example, O’Brien attended a State House hearing earlier this month to speak on behalf of a bill that would make driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants. And Millona is gearing up for a hearing this fall on what’s billed as the “Safe Communities Act,” which would put restrictions on what local police can ask people about their immigration status.
This business coalition could benefit from more visibility. Jay Ash, chief executive of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, spoke at the Newton-Needham event, but says he only learned about the initiative in recent weeks. Ash talked about growing up in Chelsea, and how immigrants enriched his community. His group of high-powered chief executives has not yet taken a position on either the driver’s license or “safe communities” bills. But the Partnership, he says, recognizes the importance of immigrants to the state’s workforce, and would like to see a global entrepreneurship program at UMass expanded for that reason.
As Ash likes to say, entrepreneurs and employers aren’t coming here for the weather, or the traffic — and certainly not for cheap home prices.
No, what makes Massachusetts so attractive from a business standpoint is its talented workforce. Without the continued influx of immigrants, that workforce can never reach its full potential.
It’s this gospel that Millona hopes to spread as she taps into the business community as a potentially powerful lobbying ally.
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.