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Helena mayor Wilmot Collins addresses the crowd

Helena mayor Wilmot Collins addresses the crowd gathered at Anchor Park for the 25th Annual Big Sky Pride in June of 2018 in Helena.

Although immigrants make up only 2.3 percent of the total population of Missoula and four surrounding counties, those 4,654 people contributed $219.9 million to the goods produced and services provided in the region, $19.3 million in federal taxes and $7 million in state and local taxes in 2016 alone.

That left them with $93.6 million in spending power, much of which they used on local businesses, according to a recent report from The New American Economy, a bipartisan nonprofit launched by businessmen Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch to influence immigration reform.

Those findings, which come from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, stand in stark contrast to claims that immigrants soak up resources that would otherwise go to American-born citizens, according to Jen Barile, the resettlement director for the local International Rescue Committee office.

“Immigration is critical to America’s economic success,” she told a crowd on Wednesday that gathered for a panel on immigration’s impact on the local economy. “As immigrants move into communities, neighborhoods are revitalized, small businesses are created and our country is enriched by the economic, cultural and civic contributions of new Americans.”

The New American Economy conducted a study of the demographics and economic contributions of foreign-born residents in the Missoula region, which they defined as Missoula, Sanders, Mineral, Lake and Ravalli counties.

On Wednesday, the IRC presented those findings and hosted a panel with Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, who is a Liberian refugee, Missoula Mayor John Engen and several business leaders.

Barile said Missoula is one of 44 communities chosen for the Gateways for Growth Challenge, a competitive opportunity from New American Economy and another nonprofit called Welcoming America. Local communities selected for the challenge receive tailored research on the contributions of immigrants, direct technical assistance to develop multi-sector plans for welcoming and integrating immigrants or matching grants.

Missoula is home to a thriving Hmong community that resettled here in the wake of the Vietnam War. Since the IRC office opened here in 2016, an additional 186 refugees have been resettled from war-ravaged places such as Syria, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Collins told the story of how both he and his wife grew up in upper middle class families in Liberia before war made them flee the country.

“My family’s situation is not unique,” he said. “There are immigrants in all 50 states. They are doctors, dentists, social workers, teachers, nurses, historians and authors. They are contributing to the economy.

"My wife is a registered nurse and is in the military. My daughter is in the military. Never in my 24 years here did I hold less than three jobs until June of this year, when I retired from the military. That’s what we do; we want to give back to the host country.”

Before the IRC office opened in Missoula in 2016, there were anti-immigration protests and elected officials calling for restrictions in immigration. Collins said that much of the rhetoric he heard was that immigrants take jobs and money and resources away from those who already live here.

“It’s so wrong for people to continue the rhetoric that all we’re doing is consuming and soaking up resources of hardworking Americans,” he said. “This is our country and we will do the best for it.”

Bobbe Sparks, the executive housekeeper at the Holiday Inn of Missoula, said refugees have helped her fill desperately needed jobs and have been fantastic workers.

“They work their hearts out,” she said. “They have a vested interest in this job. One man asked me about our Fourth of July celebration because it’s our celebration, but he wanted to understand it, too, because this is his country now.”

Kathy O’Masters, the vice president and branch manager of the Missoula Federal Credit Union’s Brooks Street office, said she and her staff have teamed up with the IRC to provide financial literacy to recent immigrants.

“Our mission is to be a force for good,” she said. “It’s always so heartwarming to see how much they want to learn so they can be successful and give back to the community.”

According to the report released Wednesday, living in the Missoula region helped create or preserve 214 manufacturing jobs that otherwise would have  vanished or moved elsewhere. Immigrants in the area are also much more likely than their U.S.-born counterparts to have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“Missoula is the place it is because we recognize the value of human diversity and human potential,” concluded Mayor John Engen, whose grandparents came from Norway. “That potential comes in many remarkable forms and we recognize the value of that diversity and how it strengthens us rather than harms us. It bolsters us and lifts us up and makes us collectively better.”

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