Only In America
By Dalton T. Sirmans, General Partner
The first-term, first black mayor of Helena, Montana is nowrunning for the state’s junior U.S. Senate seat. Nothing unusual about a local politician running for a federal office—that is, until you learn about Wilmot Collins’ life’s journey and follow the road that has led him to the national political stage.
Collins’ compelling story begins almost 30 years ago in his home country of Liberia. In 1990, he and his family were trapped by Liberia’s civil war, nearly killed on more than one occasion. His brother was beheaded by rebels. Starving and suffering from malaria, Collins and his wife escaped on a cargo ship. They had become refugees.
“Why do you think we fled?” Collins asked. “We fled because we wanted a second chance.”
It took four years of vetting by the United Nations and the United States before Collins and his wife were allowed to resettle in America. Helena, the capital of a state where about 0.6 percent of residents are African-American, became their new hometown.
While most Montanans rolled-out the welcome mat for the Collins family, there were isolated incidents of repugnant behavior. “KKK, Go back to Africa” was painted on a wall outside the Collins’ home. In the mail he received a bogus plane ticket with the same message, “Go back to Africa.” The family car was vandalized.
“People always say, ‘Oh man, you know you’re in Montana; do you experience racism down there?'” Collins said. “I say, ‘Yeah, but how your community reacts to what happens will determine whether you belong or not.’“
A chance meeting with Montana’s governor just a few days after Collins arrived led to his first job as a janitor at a children’s home. He has since worked as a caretaker and a teacher. Collins enrolled in the National Guard, and also served extended terms in the Navy and Army Reserve. His wife is a nurse at the local VA hospital. They have raised two children. Their son, who studied political science at the University of Montana, convinced his father to run for public office.
That was 2017, when Collins defeated a four-term incumbent to become the city’s first black mayor. But winning as a black man isn’t what’s important to Collins. “The last thing I want to dwell on is race. It’s divisive, and I don’t want to deal with that,” he said.
Collins’ plan as a senator is simple: he wants to make Washington more civil. His chances of winning a seat are considered slim, but that’s not the point. His story is.
As a refugee, there are few, if any, other places in the world where Wilmot Collins could be a candidate for any office. He embodies the American Dream, participating in this country as a tax-paying citizen, a man who started with nothing and defied all odds by climbing to a leadership role in his city and state—and maybe, his adopted nation.
But he is not an isolated example. Refugees have a lot to offer to America—and have a track record of doing so. In the last decade, refugees have contributed $63 billion to our GDP.
Refugees seize opportunities, not charity, as if they have no other choice than to succeed. Seventy-three percent of employers report a higher retention rate with refugees over other employees. Refugees have lower turnover rates and better on-time records and take fewer sick days. Not one of the 5,000 refugees who have been placed in jobs in the U.S. by Amplio Recruiting has failed a drug test.
In October 2019, the United States did not accept a single refugee. We’re on our way to almost completely closing the door in 2020 to people who are fleeing their home country under the threat of violence and death. As a nation, we need to rethink this policy. There are thousands of others like Wilmot Collins just asking for an opportunity, and just as refugees have throughout our history, they will make us a stronger, better nation.
“In Montana, A Liberian Refugee Mounts A U.S. Senate Challenge,” National Public Radio Morning Edition, October 9, 2019
“Denying opportunity costs,” The Economist, December 7, 2019