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Migrants make us stronger, deserve the same opportunities

Imagine moving to a new country and not knowing the language.  You need a job, but aren’t sure of the qualifications.  You go to the grocery store, but many of the foods are unfamiliar.  On top of that, you notice people looking at you differently, wondering who you are and what you’re doing there.

This is a typical migrant experience.  Some migrants benefit from family support or already having a job, others, especially those from war-torn countries, face even greater hurdles.  Yet every newcomer deserves the support and care they need to lead happy and healthy lives. 

At United Way, we fight for the health, education and financial stability of every person in every community.  We don’t just fight for those who look like us, or grew up in our neighborhood.  We recognize the potential for all of us to benefit when each of us is given the opportunity to succeed.

This message lay at the heart of my speech last week at United Way Worldwide’s Roundtable on Philanthropy in Mexico City.  Each year, United Way’s Leadership Council, a group of senior volunteers and philanthropists, brings together individuals with both the will and means to make major positive impacts in our communities. 

This year, the Roundtable focused on migration – a major issue in our world today.  In 2015, there were 244 million migrants who left one country for another.  That’s a 41 percent increase since 2000.  Unfortunately, the conversation around migration has been hijacked.  Too many people have chosen fear over hope, believing that migrants are threats to their economic or physical security.  It has led to an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality.

Most migrants, however, simply seek a better life.  They don’t have dangerous motives.  They want safety and opportunity.  Those are the same reasons people have migrated for centuries – including, I’m sure, many of you reading this post right now.

We need to ask ourselves: What can migrants contribute to our society?  What services can we provide?  What can we, both as individuals and as an organization, do to change the trajectory of the discussion and support those looking for better lives?  Because the fact is that migrants benefit our communities, both economically and culturally.

I’m proud that United Way is stepping forward.  In the United States, we support migrants from coast to coast.  In the Midwest, the United Way of Central Iowa (UWCI) educates employers about the skills and needs of refugees.  This week, UWCI is hosting a summit to celebrate refugees’ accomplishments and raise awareness about their needs.

In Canada, the United Way of Peel Region helped to survey over 40 organizations to identify gaps in social services for migrants in the area.  Now, we are working across agencies to close service gaps before the next round of refugees arrives later this year.  It’s a great example of United Way using its convening power to bring people together and mobilize resources.

During my Roundtable remarks, I highlighted many more of our international initiatives.  From Europe to China to India and beyond, we are working to provide migrants with needed opportunities.

I believe that so much of our lives comes down to opportunity.  Growing up the son of immigrants, with a father who had an eighth grade education, I feel blessed by my opportunities.  I was raised by mentors, volunteer coaches, and parents of friends.  I worked hard, but I know, thanks to my skin color and connections, that I had chances that eluded others.

The world shouldn’t work that way.  Opportunity should come to the best and the brightest, and to those willing to work hard to lead happy and healthy lives.  I’m proud that United Way makes it our goal to provide opportunity for all – no matter where you come from or who you know.

Our organization has an amazing global reach and an unparalleled understanding of the issues.  Yet today, with global migration at record levels, it will take a concerted effort from non-profits, governments, companies and individuals to change the conversation and provide migrants with the support they deserve. 

That was my message last week in Mexico City, and I hope my remarks serve as a catalyst for greater discussion and action.  For if we continue to make progress, more migrants will learn the local language, find good jobs, and strengthen our communities. 

And all of us will benefit – together.