This election cycle, GOP presidential candidates have taken their anti-immigrant rhetoric to the extreme. There’s Donald Trump, who broadly painted Mexican immigrants as people with criminal connections. There’s former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who claimed that pregnant women are coming to the country to give birth to U.S. citizens. And it’s been easy for other candidates to scapegoat Latino immigrants for perceived wage drops and unemployment of American citizens because they’re the most visible immigrant community out there.
But on Tuesday, the immigrant community finally got some good press — when a highly-competitive “genius grant” was awarded to an immigrant advocate to continue his work helping low-wage Latinos and immigrants achieve upward mobility in education and in the workforce.
Juan Salgado, who heads an organization called Instituto del Progreso Latino, was one of 24 recipients selected as 2015 fellows with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The so-called “genius grant” awards him a $625,000 no-strings-attached stipend over the next five years. The award money will be used to continue his organization’s work in helping Latinos and immigrants rise beyond “very low-wage” jobs.
In a phone interview with ThinkProgress, Salgado explained that he hopes the award will help shine a “positive light” on the contributions of Latino immigrants, especially the Mexican immigrant community that makes up the majority of the population that his organization serves.
“The reality is that immigrants have been an asset to the country since its founding, and continue to be so at this critical time in this country’s juncture,” Salgado, who is the son of a U.S. citizen dad and a Mexican mother, said.
The “genius grant” will be “catalytic for the improvement of our community,” Salgado added, pointing out that adult immigrants are often struggling to support their families by working one or two jobs in low-wage occupations.
Instituto del Progreso Latino offers the kind of training for people to go into the manufacturing and health care industries, which are sectors that Salgado noted have many unfilled high-skilled, high-growth positions. Placing qualified Latinos in those positions could have ripple effects to “build up the local economies,” and include “more money in their pockets for childhood education.” His organization also offers citizenship preparation classes for legal permanent residents as well as programs for undocumented immigrants.
More than 2,000 people have already received citizenship help from his organization and about 10,000 come through the doors annually, Salgado estimated. In a sense, Instituto del Progreso Latino’s very presence helps to counter the narrative pushed by anti-immigrant figures who say that immigrants heavily rely on American taxpayer dollars.
A 2012 study found that immigrants who naturalize see a boost in their incomes by 8 to 11 percent, generating spending dollars that add to the U.S. economy. And a 2002 study by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Chicago found that undocumented immigrants in the Chicago metropolitan area stimulated “an additional $2.56 billion in local spending,” spending that sustained 31,908 jobs in the local economy.
“We wouldn’t be anywhere near where we’re at if it wasn’t for our recent arrival of immigrants,” Salgado added. “We are a phenomenal asset that is ready to continue making our cities and america great. […] What’s happening in this country is that worker-by-worker, family-by-family, we’re winning over America. This kind of recognition and exposure help us to continue to do that.”