Remarks – Business Case for Diversity

Ambassador James D. Melville, Jr.

Ministry of Economy

Thank you, Minister.  It’s an honor to be here this morning.  I’d like to applaud your efforts to hold a constructive dialogue with the business community on a topic that elicits a range of strong emotions.

The migration crisis in Europe and the attacks in Paris and Brussels have raised tensions in both Estonia and the United States.  This heightened tension makes it more challenging to have a thoughtful, balanced discussion about integrating foreigners into a society.

I want to recognize President Ilves, Prime Minister Rõivas, Minister Oviir, and other Estonian leaders who have called for greater tolerance within the country.  Government leadership is a crucial part of creating inclusive societies.  But the business community, civil society, and the average Estonian citizen also have an important role to play.

It’s heartening to see the work done by organizations such as Mondo, the Human Rights Center, the Estonian Refugee Council, the Johannes Mihkelson Center, and the Friendly Estonia movement  to ensure that Estonia  remains an open-minded and inclusive country.  And I know that the Economy Ministry and Enterprise Estonia are also engaging with local companies to understand their barriers to attracting foreign workers, whether it’s a lack of school placements, tax issues, or other concerns.

The United States has a unique experience with immigration, and in fact we are a nation of immigrants.  While this has not come without challenges, immigrants have played and continue to play a critical role in our economy.  Put simply, our success would not be possible without the generations of immigrants who have come from every corner of the globe.  Speaking personally, I am the son and grandson of immigrants; my father and my mother’s parents all immigrated to the US when they were in their twenties.

Immigrants are more likely to start businesses than non-immigrants.  In fact, almost one-fifth of all small business owners in the United States are immigrants.  And they not only create jobs for themselves as entrepreneurs, but their businesses create jobs for other American workers.  Immigrants are our engineers, our scientists, and our innovators.  They have helped start cutting-edge technology companies like Google, eBay, Yahoo, and Intel.  And though you’ve never heard of it, Melville Energy Systems of Bradley Beach, New Jersey – the company that my father started and built, which employed over twenty people before he retired.

And while the United States is unique, it is not an outlier.  Recent OECD research concludes that immigrants in Europe have also played an important role in filling workforce gaps.  This is happening not only in high technology and health care fields, but also in jobs like assembly and machine operation, fields that domestic workers may not find attractive.  The OECD also finds that in most countries, migrants contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits.

Not all countries are nations of immigrants like the United States.  But I believe that Estonia can also benefit from greater openness to foreign workers, particularly given demographic trends here.  And I hope that we can share some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

That’s why I’m delighted to welcome our keynote speaker, Dr. Yahya Basha.

Dr. Basha immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, and since then he’s started a successful medical imaging business and has hired hundreds of other immigrants – including refugees.  Dr. Basha completed his medical degree at the University of Damascus, Syria, and did his residency in radiology at William Beaumont Hospital in Michigan.

Dr. Basha has been an active member in civil society, promoting community dialogues on immigration and tolerance, and I’m pleased that he can share some of his experiences.  Thank you for joining us, and I look forward to a constructive discussion this morning.