Are We a Welcoming Region?

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The 2017 Urban Studies Forum will examine the role of immigrant labor in the regional economy.

In the State of Washington:

Over 900,000 immigrants...

1 out of every 7 residents...

80% between ages of 16 and 64...

16.7% of the active workforce...

15% of all business owners are foreign born...

Businesses with foreign-born owners contribute $2.4 billion to state economy...

Source: Ali Modarres, director, UW Tacoma Urban Studies program

Immigration and its variant, immigrant, are loaded terms. Your thoughts about these words are likely shaped by external forces, e.g. the news. Once again, we find ourselves in the midst of a national debate on immigration and immigrants. Often lost in the political posturing and social media commentary is the fact that we’re talking about people, individuals with their own hopes, fears and dreams.  

“We seem to be overgeneralizing in our public discourse about immigrants,” said Ali Modarres, director of urban studies at UW Tacoma. “Essentially immigrants become one body and one thing.” This perception is one reason why Modarres chose immigration as a topic for this year’s Urban Studies Forum.

The 2017 Urban Studies Forum: Immigrant Labor & the Regional Economy - Assessing the South Sound’s Prospects as a Welcoming Region will be held on Thursday, February 16. Topics for discussion at the event will include the impact of immigrant labor on the local economy and whether or not it’s possible to create a “Welcoming Region” in the South Sound.

Tacoma has labeled itself a “Welcoming City” but what exactly does that mean? “A Welcoming City is not a posture or a gesture, it entails certain policies and activities,” said Modarres. “It’s also a way of understanding that the city is safe for immigrants, not only is it safe but it actually enables them, it actually celebrates their contribution.”

Modarres is interested in the idea of creating a “Welcoming Region.” Indeed, one of the panel discussions at this year’s forum will center on how this could be achieved. For Modarres the question is a mix of morality and basic economics. “Immigrants are moving because they want to improve their quality of life,” he said.  “If you facilitate that, they will help themselves and they will help you.”

For more information on the "welcoming" concept, and how it compares and contrasts with the Sanctuary City movement, see the Welcoming America web site.

The United States has a long, often turbulent relationship with immigration and with immigrants. “I think for a nation of immigrants it’s amazing how much we have not resolved around this topic,” said Moddares. “It’s a national obsession that started not too long after the American Revolution and it has lasted us for over 200 years and we’ve never reconciled who we are and how we people this country.”

Modarres moved to the US from Iran in the 1970s. His personal experience has helped guide his research into the benefits of immigration, specifically economic impact. “It is very important to understand the contribution of labor to economic development and within the labor population it is important to understand the role immigrants have played,” he said.

Panelists at this year’s forum will discuss how immigrant labor has contributed to urban revitalization at the national and local level. This emphasis on work is deliberate and underscores the need to think about the big picture. “The part that we as a nation haven’t fully explored is not what immigration does to us, but what immigration does for us,” said Modarres.

Modarres says the value of immigrant labor is rooted in our history and in everyday life. “How many of the small businesses in South Tacoma are run by immigrants? How many service workers in this region are immigrants? How many immigrants are in the tech industry? How many are working in hospitals?  Once you begin to tally that up what you really get is a more complete picture.”

Modarres hopes those who attend this year’s forum will come away with a greater understanding of immigration, that they’ll think critically about the issue and see immigrants as human beings and not a set of talking points. “The whole point of [the forum] is for people to get a sense that it’s more complicated than what is being presented” at the national level, he said.

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / February 14, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or