Ricardo Diaz was born in Mexico to an American mother and a Mexican father. He was educated in the United States, and spent summers with his family in Mexico. He’s seen the best of both worlds. Now he works as a youth development program manager for Latino families at the University of Illinois, and he sits on the board of the Champaign-Urbana Immigration Forum. He says the United States needs to do a better job of welcoming immigrant laborers and encouraging highly educated immigrants to live and work in the country.
Diaz and his team at the immigration forum provide legal advice and resources to immigrants and refugees, and work to feature the many contributions they make to the local community. “We always highlight business owners — we expected about 20 immigrant business owners in Urbana, but when we actually counted there were more than 50 — as well as folks who are contributing culturally: singing, choirs, enriching the life of our community,” Diaz says. In fact, according to New America Economy research, his district in Illinois is currently home to nearly 1,000 immigrant entrepreneurs, and the total immigrant population holds $653 million worth of spending power.
We’re literally paying to educate the foreign-born and then forcing them to leave the country because we won’t give them a way to work here.
Because of the University of Illinois, much of the area’s foreign-born population is highly educated, though Diaz says he sees too many permanently return to their home countries after completing their education. “We have some top-notch engineering programs at the university, and most of the students are not American,” he says. “What’s more, a lot of PhD students are not paying their own tuition. They’re being funded by the National Science Foundation, or other research programs. So we’re literally paying to educate the foreign-born and then forcing them to leave the country because we won’t give them a way to work here.”
Diaz wants to see reform that gives foreign workers the ability to move more freely between their home countries and the United States, especially laborers. “If the wall goes up, people will still find a way in,” he says. But they may hesitate to leave for fear of not being allowed back in. “The practical thing would be to give people a Social Security number and legal entrance, with the ability to go back and forth. Most people don’t want to immigrate if they can help it. They just want to work.”