As a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from South Sudan in the early 1990s, I was constantly reminded of how fortunate I am to be in the United States. I spent my early years romanticizing how easy my life would be compared to the horror stories of cultural and religious genocide my mother shared with me. I was also continually reminded of how my life was different from my white classmates.
My values and upbringing were shaped by a mixture of South Sudanese culture, and the social aspects of American schooling. For all our pride in America being a “melting pot,” more times than not, children of refugees are pressured to suppress their language and culture to fit in. For many refugees, this is an all-too-familiar situation: learning to adapt and conform to, in turn, be accepted into a society that has already categorized you.
Immigrants in this country face challenges unlike any the average American has seen in their lifetime. Refugees like my mother left their homes behind, left their families, children and jobs for the hope of opportunity, and more importantly a life without fear of being killed. When my mother took her first steps outside of the Sioux Falls airport in the middle of winter, she wished for nothing more than the American dream, to become a citizen of this country and prosper in the land of opportunity.
In South Dakota, refugees are still overlooked and seen as out of touch. But in reality, these very same refugees are the ones advancing our state to that we see around us today. A number of progressive movements and organizations in South Dakota find their leadership from refugee or immigrant populations: from Clara Hart, former Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, to our own Perspectives group co-founder Taneeza Islam, Esq., the executive director of South Dakota Voices for Peace.
Not only do refugees and asylum seekers flee situations of racial and ethnic discrimination and violence, but the stark reality is it manifests here in our community.
Just a year ago, refugees flooded the City Council, urging Sioux falls to continue accepting refugees under the United States Refugee Admissions Program. Not all voices heard stood in favor of this measure calling to stop refugees into our city. The question that needs to be asked is where would we be without the refugee population? As the United States debates the right immigration levels, cities across the country seeing a rise in immigrants also see a growing economy, increase in acquired taxes and higher spending power within the community. According to Jed Kolko, the chief economist with Indeed, without international migration, 44% of the nation’s population would be shrinking, instead of the current 27%.
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In 2018 alone, the American Immigration Council found that four percent of South Dakota residents were immigrants, while another 4% of residents were native-born U.S. citizens with at least one immigrant parent. Of that 4, 21,148 immigrants made up our workforce benefiting many industries like manufacturing, health care, and accommodation. For rural America, this could lead to a devastating cycle of failing businesses without a rising population. In 2018, small towns like Huron, S.D, became one of the top 10 in net international migrations due to a growing workforce’s opportunities.
So, what does this mean for South Dakota? This is a sign of growth and advancement for our state. Immigrants in South Dakota have contributed over $100 million in taxes, immigrant-led households hold the spending power of $495 million, and the 756 and counting individual business owners generating $6.4 million in business income, according to the American Immigration Council.
Refugees and immigrants, just like my mother, fled persecution to one day dream of having a life as fulfilling. In 2021, the struggle against racism and xenophobia continues, and the conversations are closer than you think. These conversations may be hard for many; although some are not as brave to stand in front of their representative and share their grievances, you still have a way to support your neighbors.
Get involved, become a part of a community that you would not regularly interact with, speak out to family and friends about the importance of immigrants and refugees within our community. Support local organizations that provide direct services and create a space within your group of friends and clubs to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment. Support local businesses within our community to help develop and grow our workforce. Changing national and local policies won’t happen overnight, but sharing a conversation brings us two steps closer to creating a world of understanding and love.
Abuk Jiel is a senior Criminal Justice and Political Science double major at the University of South Dakota, serves as the Student Body President and is the daughter of South Sudanese immigrants with bilingual community development experience.