How To Thank Hawaii’s Immigrant Essential Workers

Civil Beat
By Bennette E. Misalucha, Henry J. C. Aquino

Give them access to state services, because far too many have not been supported as they should be.

Perhaps it took a pandemic, but Hawaii is only just starting to recognize the contributions of its essential immigrant workers: the people who care for us when we’re sick, protect our food supply and are once again the backbone of our hospitality workforce.

They make incredible sacrifices for our state, yet far too many have not been supported the way they should be.

Immigrants make up 18% of our population. But according to a new report by New American Economy, they account for nearly 40% of agricultural workers, 33% of tourism, entertainment and hospitality employees and nearly half of nursing assistants.

Despite the outsized roles they play, the government does little to empower them. A recent study assessing how well the 100 largest U.S. cities supported and integrated immigrants ranked Honolulu 95th.

We must treat immigrants better.

As co-chairs of the first joint Filipino Caucus in the Hawaii State Legislature, we’re calling for equal access and more state-funded support of immigrant services. If we want immigrants in Hawaii to become economically self-sufficient, live healthier lives and participate more fully in society, then we need to give them the necessary tools to do so.

That means better access to health care and employment services as well as language assistance. It also means legal guidance and citizenship classes so that the 40,000 immigrants in Hawaii who are eligible to naturalize can do so.

Supporting the immigrant workers who’ve kept our state moving forward during the pandemic is simply the right thing to do.

That’s why the House and Senate recently passed a resolution urging the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to study how public-private partnerships can help fill existing gaps. We are excited to read the findings before the next legislative session begins in January.

Empowering immigrants is also in Hawaii’s economic best interest. Research shows that naturalized immigrants are more likely to buy homes, earn higher salaries, pay more taxes and start businesses that create jobs. As a group, immigrants pay $1.55 billion annually in federal taxes and $874 million in state and local taxes — and contribute more than $17.5 billion to Hawaii’s GDP.

In 2018, they accounted for over a quarter of all entrepreneurs in the state, making them 24% more likely to be business owners than their U.S.-born counterparts. If this is what they’re able to accomplish without adequate resources, think of how they can succeed with them.

We must treat immigrants better.

We, as a Filipina immigrant and a son of Filipino immigrant parents, both know how determined newcomers are to build a better future for their families and communities. Despite enduring decades of terrible ethnic stereotypes about our accents, clothing and cuisine, we’ve come so far as a group — politically, economically and culturally.

Yet we still have work to do to improve our status and representation. In one welcome move, a group of high school students is leading the charge to put Filipino history on the state curriculum.

Ours is just one immigrant community that proves every day how much we belong here in Hawaii and what we can achieve. Imagine what a handful of well-conceived and well-placed services — whether it’s a session with a job counselor or bilingual assistance — can do for other immigrants.

Our state needs to step up. We are already known as the most diverse state in the nation. We owe it to ourselves — and our future — to also be the most inclusive.

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