Nevada's Immigrant Impact: Almost one-in-five of us born abroad

Local conference discusses the impact and contributions immigrants have made in Nevada (Jeff Gillan | KSNV)

A bi-partisan group made up of business and civic leaders spelled out Wednesday what immigrants mean to Nevada.

548,186 were born state residents were born abroad. Of that, 187,352 are here illegally.

But both legal and illegal pay taxes: $733 million in state and local, $2.2 billion in federal, and through taxes on wages, $1.8 billion to Medicare and Social Security.

The numbers come from research done by The Partnership for a New American Economy, a group launched by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the head of FOX, Rupert Murdoch. Its mission is to push for immigration reform.

“Now we have the numbers to solidify and prove what a lot of us already know, and that is the tremendous impact that this population makes on this community day in and day out,” said Peter Guzman, the President of the Latin Chamber of Commerce.

The study says many immigrants are entrepreneurs: 31,972 are self-employed, generating $795 million in business income in 2014. Their businesses employ more than 61,000 people.

The study roll-out Wednesday brought a handful of Nevada’s movers-and-shakers. Virginia Valentine, the head of the Nevada Resort Association, which represents the local hospitality and gaming industry, spoke about the impact immigrants have on her business.

“They are a huge part of our workforce, and I frankly can’t imagine what Las Vegas would look like without immigrants in the workforce,” she told me. According to the study, immigrants make up 72% of maids and housekeepers, 56% of food preparation workers, and 47% of porters, bellhops, and concierges.

“We are at one time trying to make it easier for international visitors to come and see us,” Valentine said, “ and I think, but at the same time, we don’t want you here in our workforce, in our communities – that would be a very mixed message,” she added.

Our immigration system is also keeping highly-educated immigrants, who come here to study, from staying. It hurts our economy, said university regent Michael Wixom.

“Many of them are educated in STEM areas – science, technology, engineering, math, which we critically need,” he told me. In fact, according to the study, students on temporary visas made up roughly one-in-five students studying in STEM fields in our higher education system. When they leave, we lose potential entrepreneurs, Wixom says. “There’s a synergy that takes place when we can keep them here that we lose otherwise,” he said.

Fixing a broken immigration system is an issue close to the heart of restaurateur Irma Aguirre, who runs Nevada’s oldest Mexican restaurant, the El Sombrero on Main Street. Her Dad came here from Mexico. She’s a first-generation American.

“This is my third restaurant,” she told me as we stood in her hot, busy kitchen during the lunch rush. Her restaurant was packed.

“I am an American and I absolutely contribute to this economy in every way possible, by employing more people and keeping it vibrant,” she said. Aguirre is in the process of buying the property from its current owners, who like the fact she will keep it true to its heritage. “Now it’s passed on over to me, so it’s kind of like the 3rd generation of Mexicans that have taken over this little Mexican bistro.”

The El Sombrero employs ten people.

“We have hopes of expanding and we have hopes of bringing on more people, for sure,” she said.

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