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Commentary: Immigrants help build the cities that make Utah shine. Let’s embrace them.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thousands of workers from all trades have participated constructing the new $485 million, 866,087 square foot, Salt Lake City International terminal building, Tuesday, May 22, 2018. Utah leads the nation in job growth by percentage over the last 12 months in construction, which saw a 6.2 increase in the number of jobs.

When I first came to the United States from my native country of South Africa in 1983, at age 22, all I brought with me was a suitcase, $1,000 and a big dream of success in America. I grew up in Durban inspired by American democratic ideals of freedom and opportunity. I knew in my heart that if you worked hard — and had a little luck — you could make it beyond your wildest expectations here.

For centuries, this belief has fueled the ambitions of many immigrants like me. We start businesses at nearly twice the rate as native-born Americans and are responsible for more than one in four new ventures, according to research by New American Economy. After becoming a certified public accountant and earning my real estate broker license, I co-founded Columbus Pacific Properties in 1995. We have developed apartments and shopping centers around Salt Lake City as well as luxury condominiums and single-family residences in Park City.

But I’m most passionate about our current project in Canyons Village at the base of Park City Mountain. Not only will the development’s shops, restaurants and hotel create jobs, I hope it will secure Park City’s reputation as the world's premiere ski destination. Its event spaces and plazas will also create new gathering places for the community.

My wife and I fell in love with Utah in 2000 when we brought our kids to Park City to learn how to ski. Since then, we’ve built a home, put down roots and now divide our time between California and Utah. Now that our youngest child has headed off to college, we plan to become Park City residents. I admire the town’s natural beauty, fierce independent spirit and friendly residents – many of whom have also come here from other states to raise their families and enjoy the outdoors.

Yet the success of our cities also depends on the contributions of other people who have come here from somewhere else. Immigrants are essential to help build and run the hotels and restaurants that attract tourist dollars to keep our local economies flourishing. Their efforts also help create permanent jobs for Americans who staff the facilities and open other businesses around town to meet the demand for tourist services.

That’s why I urge Congress to recognize that immigration is good for business and for America and pass reform that embraces their talents. We need to make room for immigrants who bring much-needed talent to keep our economy growing. We need to create a path for foreign students to continue to give back after they graduate from our universities. We also need to allow skilled temporary workers to fill counter-productive and frustrating labor shortages. Immigrants are also critical to Utah’s booming construction industry and tech powerhouse Silicon Slopes. They account for nearly 30 percent of construction laborers. They also make up 11 percent of workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields that distinguish Utah as an innovator in advanced manufacturing and data support.

In Utah alone, more than 13,200 immigrant entrepreneurs own businesses that generated more than $248 million in income and created more than 31,000 jobs. As a group, the nearly 252,000 Utah residents who were born abroad earn $5.2 billion dollars, which contributed to one in every 12 dollars paid by Utah residents in state and local tax revenues, according to New American Economy.

Immigrants are an important part of Utah’s stunning economic growth. Let’s support policies that help them succeed and help our state shine.

Brian Shirken is the cofounder and principal of Columbus Pacific Properties.

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