In 1999, my parents emigrated to the United States from Nigeria to provide a better life for my three younger siblings and me. We came through the visa lottery system, and though my dad was a mechanical engineer and owned a metals and machines company in Nigeria, he worried about the country’s political instability and poor education system.
Unfortunately, my dad’s university degree wasn’t recognized in the U.S., so, once here, he had to start over. He worked odd jobs and delivered newspapers while my mother worked at Sears and at Publix grocery stores. My parents worked hard to survive, but when my mother became pregnant, they signed up for Medicaid and for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. My parents were embarrassed to need the help, but it got us through a tough time.
Today, families in this situation could be at risk of deportation. A new rule proposed by the Trump administration would consider anyone who receives or is likely to receive in public benefits more than 15 percent of poverty-line income (only $2.50 per person daily for a family of four) a “public charge,” potentially barring them from gaining permanent residency in the United States. This rule would be devastating to immigrant families like mine.
My mother attended night classes while working to earn a nursing certificate and eventually became a nursing assistant to work with the elderly. Like my mother, many immigrants come here with little and move into fields such as health care that are vital to our economy and need workers. At the moment, there are far more health care jobs open than there are workers available to fill them, and with 76.4 million aging baby boomers, the situation will only become more dire, especially if we push out many of the foreign-born workers that keep the industry running.
And it’s not just health care. From education to agriculture, immigrants are vital to addressing nationwide labor shortages, despite the fact that many of the jobs they fill come with low salaries and no benefits. In fact, more than 91 percent of noncitizens that would be affected by the public-charge rule are currently employed and earning a collective $96.4 billion in annual income, according to an analysis by the bipartisan nonprofit New American Economy. And the conservative Cato Institute found that this rule likely would apply to individuals who are up to 95 percent self-sufficient. They are working hard to contribute to this country; if they need extra help, it’s the result of larger economic forces, not a lack of motivation or work ethic.
Growing up, I knew I had to work hard and take my education seriously because of the sacrifices my parents made. My siblings felt the same. I graduated from Chatham University with an MBA and today I manage Welcoming Pittsburgh through the mayor’s office, helping immigrants adjust to life in the United States. One of my brothers graduated from Georgia Southern University and plans to open his own restaurant. My younger sister works for a startup company in Santa Monica, Calif., that provides micro-loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries via a smartphone app.
Starting our lives over in a new country wasn’t easy. When we first arrived, we shared a motel room in East Atlanta, Ga. We kids slept on the bed with my mom while my dad took the floor. After six months, we were able to rent our first American apartment and buy a few pieces of furniture.
We worked hard to become contributing members of this state and this country. I am grateful for the small assistance we received and want others to have the same opportunities so they too can make America their home. This is the spirit of the country I know and love. Please, let’s not forget that.