As American communities become more aware of economic and humanitarian contributions from local immigrants, the complexity of the U.S. immigration system becomes more personal, said a keynote speaker at a Salt Lake City awards luncheon Wednesday.
Utah is a global community that gives its immigrant population the support it needs to succeed, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. The state has set the standard for “constructive Republicanism,” he said, and has avoided an “identity crisis” that faces the rest of the nation by allowing “the racial and ethnic evolution in Utah to proceed in a positive way.”
“Immigration for the majority of Americans is not about politics and policy; it’s about culture and values,” Noorani told a crowd gathered for the luncheon where four Utah immigrants received the American Dream Award from the Salt Lake Chamber and United Way of Salt Lake.
“So in order to change somebody’s heart and mind,” he added, “we have to engage them through a cultural question — through their faith, through a public safety concern, through a concern they have about their own family from an economic perspective.”
Now more than ever, Noorani said, undocumented immigrants have identities, such as your child’s best friend, the family sitting two pews away in church, a couple living down the street. And although political hostility may threaten these people, he said, Utah can — and has — changed the national debate on immigration reform.
“Liberal or conservative, we need to meet people where they are but not leave them there,” Noorani said, quoting a book he recently authored, “There Goes the Neighborhood.”
Jorge Fierro, creator of the Rico Brand and owner of the Salt Lake City restaurant Frida Bistro, was one of the recipients of the award Wednesday. He said he is an example of what immigrants have to offer.
Two decades ago, Fierro was a Mexican immigrant learning English and living on the streets of Salt Lake City. In his humble circumstances, he used his mother’s recipe to turn “an unappetizing can of store-bought refried beans” into a product he sold at the downtown farmers market.
Since opening his restaurant in 2010, Fierro has provided thousands of free burritos to the homeless.
“The philanthropic minds of Americans always fascinated me,” Fierro said, and he paid attention, even as a child, when people from the U.S. would participate in global affairs.
But no one accomplishes great things all by himself, he said.
“If we don’t think as a team, we’re never going to get things done,” Fierro said.
He and fellow recipients — longtime homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson; venture capitalist, biotechnology pioneer and philanthropist Dinesh Patel; and University of Utah business professor Abe Bakhsheshy — said they owe their accomplishments to community members interested in helping make their dreams come true. And now they’re trying to give back.