Study: Asheville's Economic Health Depends on Immigration

May 22, 2019
Originally published on May 22, 2019 6:35 am


Last week, the Trump administration outlined a plan to overhaul the country’s immigration system to prioritize applicants with college degrees over those with familial ties. But business leaders in Asheville say they need workers at all skill levels, particularly given the county’s record low unemployment rate.

The unemployment rate in Buncombe County has stayed below 4 percent in the last two years. While that comes as good news for some, it can pose a challenge for employers seeking to fill vacant positions. That’s particularly the case in construction, manufacturing and tourism, industries.


“In every single industry, and just in my organization, I’ve got jobs to fill at every level of the organization,” John Oswald is president and CEO of Mills Manufacturing Company said.


His company produces parachutes for the US military. He says two-thirds of his employees are foreign-born, and he’s depending on more immigrant workers for his company to grow.


And he’s not alone. A study released Tues. says immigrants make up more than 7 percent of the workforce in the manufacturing industry in Asheville. The “New Americans in Asheville” report also says while immigrants make up 5 percent of the city’s population, they make up twice their share in tourism and construction jobs.


New American Economy, a research and advocacy organization, put out the report with the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, to highlight the economic impact of immigration on local workplaces and communities.


“To talk about this issue in a way that takes out the politics,” Kate Brick, director of State and Local Initiatives at New American Economy, said. “And the real need in our country to have immigrants and to have policies that reflect the fact that we need to have immigrants in all of our communities.”


But it’s a conversation that’s largely dictated by federal policies.


Keith Wayne is president of Wayne Brothers Companies, a construction business that relies heavily on migrant workers. Wayne says President Donald Trump’s recent announcement about preferring immigrants based on “merit” -- to mean high-skilled workers with degrees -- is misguided.   


“Merit is a great word, but define it differently, it’s not doctors and lawyers and engineers, it’s laborers and carpenters and the folks who do the hard work,” Wayne said. “I would say to Mr. Trump read the inscription on the statue of liberty.”


Wayne was joined by panelists representing Asheville’s manufacturing and hotel industries. The impact study says foreign-born workers in Asheville make up 12.7 percent of the construction workforce and 11.3 percent of tourism and recreation jobs.


The employers all say a path to citizenship should be a policy priority for the federal government.

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