Members of Atlanta's growing foreign-born community take part in the MyCity program, which allows them to hear about services and resources directly from municipal representatives. Here, they learn from Fire Sergeant Cortez Stafford. Photo: Welcoming Atlanta

Editor’s note: This commentary was written by Valerie Mills, Senior Program Manager in the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’s Division of Immigrant Affairs.

Valerie Mills

Here is an alarming fact: By 2030, there will only be 48 working-age Georgians to help provide for every 52 elderly Georgians relying on taxpayer-funded programs like Medicare. Our state’s population is rapidly aging, and if we don’t take steps to shore up our workforce today, our economy will suffer tomorrow

In the Mayor’s office, we see a straightforward solution: Help Georgia’s foreign-born residents fill positions with the most significant demand. Over 83 percent of immigrants in our state are of prime working age, according to New American Economy. And in many cases, they’re already trained in the professions where they are most needed.   

New policies announced by the White House in January would help do this. The new guidelines increase the number of international STEM students who can seek employment after they graduate. Those guidelines also make it easier for highly-skilled immigrants on temporary visas to start their own companies and become permanent residents. 

We need these reforms. Our state’s nursing shortage is at crisis levels, and there are at least 400 open STEM jobs annually in Georgia and not enough qualified workers to fill them. Under the new guidelines, more of the roughly 21,000 international students currently attending our state’s colleges could remain here for up to three years after graduation—making them directly available to fill worker shortages in STEM fields. Talented immigrants who are already here on temporary visas will be able to launch innovative companies that are considered “in the national interest.” 

At the office of immigrant affairs, we know that immigrants are already crucial to these industries: 73,000 work in Georgia’s healthcare and social assistance industry. Our STEM workforce is also nearly 23 percent foreign-born, according to NAE. And 42 percent of our software engineers were born abroad. 

Even so, far too many of the people who work in our hospitals, fuel our tech companies, and drive our cutting-edge research industry, live on temporary visas. That’s something only Congress can address; the White House doesn’t have the authority to help international graduates secure visas after their three years end. Further, only a relatively small number of high-skilled workers will be able to secure the national interest waiver.  

It’s no wonder, then, that we’re losing both professionals and international students to Canada, Australia and the U.K., all of which have friendlier foreign worker policies. I have heard of an Indian native in Atlanta whose artificial intelligence company can create up to 7,000 jobs over the next decade. But after waiting in the green card backlog for 10 years, he’s now considering moving the company (and the jobs he’s creating) to Canada.  

It’s much easier to start a business with a green card. That security helped Guinean native Mariama Sadio Lee launch her African beauty and couture company, Yama Elegance. It allowed Mexican native Helio Bernal to open his popular restaurant, Real Mexican Vittles, 20 years ago. As a result, he has created dozens of jobs in Atlanta over the last two decades. These individuals are among Atlanta’s more than 69,000 foreign-born business owners, creating employment and adding services to our community.   

[pullquote]As long as we continue to lose talent, we’ll never be the globally competitive city we hope to be.[/pullquote]

But these success stories are fewer now than before. That’s because 5 million people are currently in line, awaiting green cards. Their wait for permanent residency extends for decades and, in some cases, for more than a century. Far too many Atlantans are standing in the wings, arbitrarily prohibited from enriching their communities.   

Atlanta already has systems in place to help our foreign-born residents reach their full potential. I lead iSpeakATL, which offers free interpretation and translation services to the city’s limited English-speaking population. We also have the MyCity program, allowing immigrants to hear about services and resources directly from municipal representatives.  

As long as we continue to lose talent, we’ll never be the globally competitive city we hope to be. Real change requires congressional action. Our city is desperate to move forward; we hope Congress will come with us. 

Valerie Mills is the Senior Program Manager in the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’s Division of Immigrant Affairs.