If there was one point that John Barros, Boston’s chief of economic development, wanted to make clear Wednesday, it was that immigrants make an enormous contribution to the economy.
“Immigrants and immigration is not a displacement factor for Americans,” Barros said at a HUBweek event on entrepreneurship and diversity at City Hall Plaza. “I feel like I just have to say it because too often I’m having a conversation about how immigrants are ‘taking jobs’ or ‘taking opportunities’ and it’s just not a fact.”
On stage with Barros were entrepreneurs from China, France, and Spain who’ve established companies such as Cambridge-based Vedanta Biosciences Inc., which uses live microbes found in the gut to make medicine. They currently employ 77 employees from all over the world, said Bernat Olle, CEO of Vedanta.
“For all the immigration issues that the US has, you can still get more talent here than anywhere else,” Olle said.
Olle, who emigrated from Spain, said he decided to apply for citizenship out of fear that under the Trump administration a green card may eventually not be enough. He’s married to an American woman, and they had a child shortly after Trump took office.
“It’s just the unpredictability,” Olle said. “You can’t really tell what this guy’s going to do.”
Ivan Fernandez de Casadevante, one of the founders of Ori, a design and robotics firm, said he and the other founders, some of whom were international students who came to MIT for college, ran into immigration challenges as they approached graduation. Fernandez de Casadevante was at risk of being deported. He found the University of Massachusetts Boston Venture Development Center, which acted as an incubator for their business and sponsored his H1B visa. The visa lets US employers offer jobs to foreign-born workers for specific industries.
“Most of the tech companies will point you to the H1B. That’s a visa that works really well for big tech companies that can sponsor you,” he said. “But when you are only like three or four people, that’s when you really struggle because there’s no way to sponsor yourselves.”
There’s a danger of losing these innovative minds to other countries like New Zealand and Canada that are capitalizing on these opportunities by having welcoming immigration policies, said Jody Rose, president of the New England Venture Capital Association.
“Because of the rhetoric and because of what’s happening around creating borders and creating executive orders that are going to limit immigration . . . what we are starting to hear from potential entrepreneurs is they’re looking at other options,” Rose said. “We’re putting ourselves at a disadvantage. We will no longer be able to compete at a global level.”
Barros said immigrants living in Boston contribute $4.3 billion worth of consumer spending, which created almost 20,000 jobs in the city.
“The US economy is built on the notion of growth, not on maintenance,” Barros said. “If we close our borders today, the economy would be stifled.”