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In Nashua, Business Leaders Turn to Immigration for Economic Boost

Nashua residents recently packed City Hall to urge their aldermen to back a resolution that would affirm the city’s welcoming stance toward refugees and immigrants. Activists and others spoke in support of the newcomers, but they also had a somewhat unlikely ally: the city’s business leaders, who say foreign-born residents would boost Nashua’s economic vitality.

Kyle Schneck is among the people making that argument, though you’d probably never mistake him for an activist type. He’s a young clean-cut New Hampshire native, and the other day when we meet in downtown Nashua, he was wearing a polo shirt with the logo of his employer on it: Merrimack County Savings Bank, where he’s vice president for commercial lending.

But it’s precisely Schneck’s business experience that led him to speak out on Nashua’s immigration issue.

"Our bank, we’ve got a good number of established business clients — real estate developers, new businesses. when i go out and talk to them and say what’s the number one thing you need to grow, they all say people," Schneck said. "They need skilled labor, they need dependable labor, and it’s a tremendous impediment to their growth right now.”

The same can be said across New Hampshire these days. The state has a demographic problem — sometimes referred to by public policy folks as a “silver tsunami.” The population here is aging faster than the rest of the country, and experts say a shortage of young workers is a major crimp on economic growth.

So it is that many in Nashua’s business community have concluded that immigration, of all kinds, is the key to pumping new blood into the economy.

"The country s a whole is obviously becoming more diverse, and New England I’d say is probably the last bastion of that old-time European stock that came over generations ago, and it’s great to have that’s in the community, but that’s changing," said Tracy Hatch, the CEO of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce. 
"If you look truly at the economic trends, the need for younger workers, to fill jobs, right now they’re being unfilled; we’re unable to do that with our native-born population. It just isn’t happening.”

Immigration already appears to be having a significant impact in Nashua. Much of the city’s recent population growth has come from foreigners. Nashua’s share of foreign-born residents has increased significantly over the past few years, with immigrants now making up more than 13 percent of the population, the largest concentration in the state.
A report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a group that supports immigration, notes that immigrants earned some 3.2 billion dollars in New Hampshire in 2014 — and that’s across the spectrum, from highly skilled engineers with special visas to undocumented workers.

Of course in the current political climate, immigration is a touchy subject. This may help explain why a seemingly benign pro-immigrant resolution became such a controversial issue for the Board of Aldermen late last month. 

Critics said their concerns centered on the group promoting the resolution, Welcoming America. It’s a national organization with partnerships in dozens of so-called “Welcoming Cities” around the country. But some aldermen suggested the group had a liberal political agenda and obscure funding sources.

Alderman Ken Seigel said he read through documents on the group’s website and concluded that it wanted to advance its agenda through what he called an “Orwellian message twisting mechanism.”

The “Welcoming America” resolution only narrowly passed the Board of Aldermen, 8-7. Despite the controversy, the resolution reflects what in many ways is already happening in the Gate City.

Among the immigrant communities that have taken root in Nashua in recent years is a small group of refugees from Burma, today known as Myanmar. They’re members of a persecuted ethnic and religious group called the Rohingya.

Mohammad Mustak, a leader in the community, is an example of the kind of economic impact refugees are having. He works two jobs, including one managing a staffing firm that places fellow refugees in jobs at area hotels and manufacturers, as well as Walmart.

“Sometimes, when people settle here, people think they’re depending on the government, welfare," Mustak said. "But I don’t think that. Most refugees — I don't know other communites, I know my community -- when they resettled here, after one month, some people already started jobs.”

For his part, Mustak says Nashua is indeed a welcoming community, offering opportunities that he never could’ve imagined in Burma.  There’s just one challenge: adjusting to the winters.

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