(Note: This post was first published in June, 2013. The Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs report cited in the post was from 2009; the link is for the 2010 report.)
Amazing what some simple, rational research can do for one’s perspective. Within a few weeks, I’ve come to believe that immigrants can benefit our country more than cost it.
For the most part, my “arguments” against immigration have been based on emotions. After 9/11, when the news broke that the Islamic terrorist group, al-Qaeda, was responsible for the attacks and that the 19 hijackers were here on visas, my initial reaction was to “close the doors until we can better track who’s here and where they are.” Also, I was all for any method that the government wanted to use to protect our country/its citizens from the terrorist sleeper cells that were surely lying in wait under our very noses.
Several years after 9/11 and before our last recession “settled in for the long haul,” I had become complacent about the immigration issue. Like a lot of other Americans, I felt safe and — economically — I was comfortable. However, I once again became emotional about the numbers of legal immigrants coming into the U.S. when — from 2009 to 2011 — I was helping to manage an after-school literacy program for at-risk youth in St. Paul, Minnesota. Many of my students were Hmong refugees who had come to the U.S. in 2005 when their refugee camp in Thailand closed. (Minnesota, California and Wisconsin have the largest Hmong populations in the U.S. Minneapolis is home to more Somalian refugees than any other city in the U.S.)
Learning English and assimilating into American culture seemed easier for the elementary school students, even if their parents and older siblings were not speaking English at home. However, the high school students, who came for homework help, struggled with learning English, and several of them were labeled “senior-seniors” because they were repeating their senior year of school — some of them more than once. It frustrated the program’s volunteers and myself because we couldn’t figure out how they were learning anything from their required courses by filling out scores of worksheets they could not read.
I was especially irritated (with “the system,” not the students) when I discovered that several of them were fulfilling their “second language” requirement by taking Spanish, French or … Japanese. This did not make sense to me, particularly regarding their chances of getting jobs and/or going on to college; during that time, the Minnesota unemployment rate was at its highest in 10 years — 8.5 percent. Across the country, anti-immigrant sentiment was also at an all-time high.
It broke my heart to think about what was going to happen to them. These were good kids who were working hard toward success in a “strange land.” I often spoke out (to friends and family) against “do-gooder social agencies” that intended to “save” refugee groups by dumping them into a system that could not support them educationally and economically. I wondered why the government didn’t just put the brakes on immigration during hard times.
Recently, I read “The Economic Impact of Immigrants in Minnesota,” a report from 2009*** from the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs (this report also offers information for the country as a whole). As a follow-up, I researched several Internet reports regarding the bipartisan Senate committee’s immigration bill that President Obama wants passed by this summer.
Among other things, I was glad to learn:
- The bill calls for a Bureau of Immigration and Market Research that would analyze labor shortages and recommend whether the cap on visas should go up or down. Employers would be required to fill jobs (low-wage and higher-wage/higher education jobs) with Americans first.
- As the economy grows, there is an increased demand for a younger workforce to meet growing demand for products and services. The tax benefits and increased productivity will make up for the gap created by the aging baby boomer demographic, who are retiring, not spending as much to “fuel the economy” and not paying taxes that support Social Security and Medicare.
- Without new, young workers, certain sectors of the economy will continue to shrink. According to the 2009 report, if immigrants were removed from the labor force in Minnesota, the state would lose over 24,000 permanent jobs and $1.2 billion in personal income that, in turn, supports the larger economy.
- In aging, rural communities across the U.S., new immigrants bring many fiscal advantages that come from filling agricultural and manufacturing jobs, maintaining home values and keeping schools open. Many immigrant businesses have been responsible for revitalizing downtrodden metropolitan neighborhoods.
- The U.S. Council of Economic Advisers has estimated in earlier reports that the country’s net gain from immigration is $37 billion per year. Many studies have concluded that the tax payments generated by immigrants outweigh any costs associated with services used by immigrants. Even undocumented immigrants pay retail and property taxes, and many pay income and Social Security taxes through Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers.
- Many immigrants who come to fill low-skilled occupations are not competing with a better-educated native-born workforce. Also, there are many higher-level occupations in science, math and engineering that are being filled by immigrants because there are not enough native-born citizens to fill those positions.
- There are educational and health care costs associated with immigration, however most experts agree that these short-term costs are outweighed by the long-term benefits of a healthy labor force. Also, analysis has shown that wages for all workers rise when jobs are filled and consumption is increased.
- Many supporters — conservatives and liberals — of the immigration reform bill agree that newly legalized immigrants would eventually become upwardly mobile, move into higher tax brackets, pay more in taxes and use fewer government services.
*** (Note: This post, first published in June 2013, was based on the 2009 report.) The 2009 report acknowledged “the different barriers to integration” faced by some of Minnesota’s newer refugee populations, but no recommendations were offered. Other research I conducted stressed the importance of employment as soon as possible as well as adoption of American ideals. Many of their and other immigrants’ benefits are not easily measured, but diversity in our communities and labor force brings new energy, ideas and skills that spark innovation and continues to enrich America’s “soul.” The country was founded by settlers seeking refuge from persecution; our Constitution and Bill of Rights are dedicated to protecting basic human rights. And, although we are not without our faults, turning away from those who are suffering because of oppression, violence and genocide has never been the American way.
* “The New Colossus” was written by American poet Emma Lazarus and donated to an auction of art and literary works to raise funds to build the pedestal. At first, Lazarus declined to donate, then changed her mind after a fellow literary artist convinced her that the statue would be a significant symbol for immigrants sailing into the harbor. Lazarus, born in America in 1849 to Jewish parents, became passionate about her ancestry and the immigrant situation, especially the indigent Russian Jews who were emigrating to New York during her lifetime because of the anti-Semitic violence against them in their country. “The New Colossus” was the only poem read at the auction but actually played no role at the statue’s opening in 1886. In 1901, a friend of Lazarus led the effort to memorialize her and the poem. In 1903, the engraved plaque was mounted on the inner wall of the statue’s pedestal.
** The Statue of Liberty (stock photo) was not intended to be a symbol for immigrants; originally, its message was to be one of “enlightenment” based on respect for laws that supported political freedoms. In fact, the statue’s connection with immigration was criticized by Nativists (Americans opposed to immigration) at the end of the 19th century; they felt that the U.S. way of life was being threatened by waves of immigrants.