Immigrants’ contributions a focus of study
The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, which has taught English to at least 7,000 students over the last two decades, has teamed with George Mason University to launch a new research center that will focus on the contributions of immigrants as entrepreneurs, workers, and consumers.
“The goal is to produce research that shows the impact that immigrants have on the economy,’’ said Diane Portnoy, president of The Immigrant Learning Center. Portnoy, who also helped create the new Institute for Immigration Research with George Mason, said early research projects would include mapping immigrants’ economic activity across the United States, along with a report on the role college-educated immigrants play in the economy.
Portnoy said she chose Virginia-based George Mason as a partner because the school is near Washington D.C., where she hopes the reports will be disseminated to legislators as they discuss immigration reform. According to the Department of Homeland Security, there are at least 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States.
“With all of the heated rhetoric about immigration these days, academically rigorous research results are needed to cool the discussion with objective information. The Institute for Immigration Research will fill that void,’’ said the institute’s research director, James Witte, who is also a professor of sociology and director of George Mason’s Center for Social Science Research.
George Mason’s Center for Social Science Research has also created the Mason Project on Immigration, which focuses on the immigrant experience in the United States. The project has researched immigrants in Northern Virginia, documenting Virginia’s Latino community.
Portnoy believes the new nonprofit - which is privately funded - will become one of the primary research institutes on immigrants in the country. Portnoy said the George Mason scholars will conduct the research. She expects the institute’s budget will grow from $250,000 this year to $1 million annually, as the research is made public.
The new venture is the latest project for an organization that had modest goals when it began in Malden Square 20 years ago. Portnoy, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, was born in East Germany after World War II. She grew up in Malden and started the nonprofit because she saw a need for a center where immigrants could learn English for free.
The program has grown from three teachers and 60 students to a staff of 32, and hundreds of pupils.
Half of the students come from Malden, and the rest from dozens of other communities, as far away as southern Massachusetts. The immersion classes, where English is the only language spoken, are held every day with students committed to spending 15 hours a week in the classroom. Over the years, 7,000 students from 109 countries have been taught English at the center.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Portnoy witnessed a backlash against immigrants. “There was all this anti-immigrant rhetoric and none of it was based on truth,’’ she said. At that time, Portnoy saw a need to expand the center and add a research component - the Public Education Institute, which is also based at the Malden office. Over the years, the institute has created 10 reports on immigrants and the economy. Portnoy said the goal of all the research is to show that immigrants are an important asset to the country’s economic growth. “The numbers out there are startling,’’ said Portnoy, who reeled off a string of facts about immigrants and the economy.
Among her institute’s findings: Immigrant-headed households comprise 16.7 percent of tax filers in Massachusetts; over 25 percent of biotechnology companies in New England have at least one foreign-born founder; about 30 percent of all leisure and hospitality business owners in Massachusetts are foreign-born.
Portnoy said much of the research has revealed that immigrants stimulate economic growth.
“There is this feeling in the country that there’s this limited pie, and that there’s only so much that can go around for everybody and therefore we have to close the borders, because if we let more people in there will be less for us,’’ said Portnoy. “But if you’re an economist you realize that that’s just not the case. As you let people in the pie grows, the pie is not limited. And so as you let people in, and they start businesses, and their children are educated, the pie expands and there’s actually more for everybody.’’
Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.