For years, the business case for immigrants and immigration focused on the bottom line, the supply of labor, the cost of a product. Personal stories, seen as controversial, were separated from the policy questions.
We thought if the business sector led the political and policy debate, we would win.
Instead, the native-born worker worried about their future, or the future of their children, was scared of the immigrant they never got to know. They felt the nation was changing because of immigration policies driven by corporate America. Many came to oppose both immigration and trade.
They feared the Mexican next door, or the Mexican in Mexico, was going to take their job.
Well, our nation’s immigration debate isn’t about politics and policy. It is about culture and values. So, for the largest employers in the US, how does the personal replace the political? How does a cultural conversation set the foundation for a policy debate in the future?
In the Fall of 2017, I was in Bentonville, Arkansas, meeting with Walmart and other partners in the region. Before heading to the World Champion Squirrel Cook Off for the afternoon, I joined a few hundred senior leadership and Home Office staff for a Saturday Morning Meeting, chaired by Walmart CEO, Doug McMillon (incoming chair of the Business Roundtable).
That morning, Doug honored a number of Walmart truck drivers for their work delivering supplies to Hurricane Harvey victims. Looking the part of the traditional truck driver, they were greeted by applause and handshakes by the executives in the room.
A bit later in the meeting, Doug brought to the stage a store associate to mark Hispanic Heritage Month. Dressed in a beautiful, gold embroidered suit, she sang “Mejor Contigo” with an infectious joy that got the truck drivers and their wives grinning and moving with the music. (Love this video of the performance from Walmart’s Mark Espinoza.)
For the nation’s largest private sector employer, this was all personal, all culture; no politics, no policy.
Which, I would argue, played a role in laying the foundation for last week’s remarkable announcement by Ben-Saba Hasan, Walmart’s Senior Vice President and Chief Culture Diversity & Inclusion Officer, that the company was now partnering with the National Immigration Forum to provide “immigrant families within Walmart the support of English language instruction and help with the citizenship process.”
In a pilot test of the campaign, with no internal marketing, 600 Walmart associates have already taken advantage of the opportunity. As Hasan wrote, “The business community was mostly a spectator during the civil rights movement of my youth. That’s why I’m proud we’re an active player in today’s movement to welcome immigrants.”
Corporations are realizing that with nearly 17% of our nation’s workforce being foreign-born, they need to help their own workforces, much less society overall, understand and grapple with these changes.
Walmart and Chobani are co-chairing the Forum’s new Corporate Roundtable for the New American Workforce. And, on a parallel track, Lyft, Whole Foods, Kroger and Publix have all partnered with the Forum to offer contextualized English language learning to their foreign born workforce.
As Soren Bjorn, CEO of Driscoll’s, a Roundtable member, told me, “More and more, there is a much greater willingness [among corporations] to get involved. … There is a void, there is a vacuum.”
Bjorn’s story is an interesting one. He came to the US some 30 years ago, expecting to return to Denmark to run the family’s construction company. But, he told me, “My mom knew all along I wasn’t coming back.”
So, last Thursday, the same day Bjorn spoke with Fortune about immigration issues, he became a US citizen. Working with growers and harvesters across the nation, Bjorn now feels like he can be in the debate without “any reservations.”
And, as for Driscoll’s, the largest agricultural employer in the country, Bjorn told me, “We are making it really, really, clear that if you work in our company, regardless of where you were born, we hold you in high regard.”
In the immigration advocacy business we always want to make the political case, the policy case, for immigrants and immigration.
But, as the corporate trajectory of the last few years has taught us, from Walmart to Driscoll’s to many others, maybe all we need to say to each other, immigrant or not, is, “mejor contigo.”
Better with you.