Whenever Tiffani Mensch goes to her favorite falafel shop in downtown Knoxville, there is always a line. The popular shop opened recently after its owner, a Syrian refugee named Yassin, moved to the area to escape the war. To Mensch, Yassin represents “how immigrants can revitalize communities with their diverse culture, art, and food.”
An accessible, efficient immigration process will enable talented workers to stay in Tennessee.
As the Director of Community Engagement of the Alliance for Better Nonprofits, Mensch sees how urgently Knoxville needs immigrants. The city is facing a serious labor shortage, especially in STEM fields. The irony, Mensch notes, is that the University of Tennessee attracts and trains highly skilled international students in math and the sciences. “There are so many immigrants who come to this area that have the specialized skills,” which are in high demand from local businesses, such as Oakridge National Laboratory and tech start-ups like Fiveworx, an energy efficiency solutions provider. But immigration policy prevents these graduates from filling open jobs.
Mensch supports immigration reform because she believes an accessible, efficient immigration process will enable talented workers to stay in Tennessee, fuel the economy, and help local businesses grow. “Being able to keep these people here with their families is only going to improve our community,” Mensch says.
Previously, Mensch worked at the University of Tennessee’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, which is home to the Center for Sport, Peace, and Society. The Center builds relationships and encourages research partnerships across cultures through athletics. This work provided a direct look at the challenges immigrants and refugees face when trying to adapt to a new country. Though highly educated, they had difficulty navigating American systems, such as acquiring documentation that would allow them to work in the country or taking the right steps toward obtaining citizenship. As a result, they struggled to reach their full potential. “They’re not utilizing all of the skills they have to boost the economy here and participate in the workforce,” she says.
Today, at the Alliance for Better Nonprofits, Mensch works with a range of nonprofits, many of which address these problems. They assist immigrants with obtaining visas and provide them with resources for moving the citizenship process along faster. But the gap between the number of people nonprofits are helping and the number of people who need these services is vast. That’s why immigration reform is so important, says Mensch. Helping undocumented immigrants get the paperwork necessary to get established in Knoxville means the city will retain the talent, skills, and culture that these immigrants offer. It would allow more people like Yassin, the falafel shop owner, to open great restaurants, boutique stores, and companies. “It’s good to have more of that,” Mensch says. “It’s going to keep people in Knoxville.”