Esther Cepeda: The value immigrants have always brought
CHICAGO—In a year in which immigrants have been dragged through the mud and certain politicians have called on them to be driven from this country, it’s ironic (and heartening) that six of this year’s Nobel laureates are American immigrants.
Five of them were born in Great Britain, the other in Finland, and all are affiliated with top-tier U.S. universities like Princeton, MIT and Northwestern University.
Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, a Scottish-born researcher at Northwestern who won the prize in chemistry along with French and Dutch researchers, told the political website The Hill: “It’s particularly pertinent to have these discussions in view of the political climate on both sides of the pond at the moment.” The naturalized U.S. citizen concluded, “I think the United States is what it is today largely because of open borders.”
He needn’t have equivocated—that’s absolutely historically correct. We can look back through our centuries of welcoming immigrants and it’s generally seen as an unqualified good.
The problem is that conflicting political agendas, media accounts and advocacy organizations’ casting of immigrants as archetypically good or evil—unlawfully present drug smugglers and violent criminals or angelically humble, poor, hardworking and striving for the American Dream—leave out the vast majority of immigrants who don’t fit neatly into either stereotype.
Some politicians have convinced large swaths of the American public that immigrants come to the U.S. to take jobs. But, according to New American Economy (NAE), a bipartisan immigration-reform advocacy organization, even when excluding large, publicly traded firms, businesses owned by immigrants employed about 6 million workers in 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available.
In a new report, “Reason for Reform: Entrepreneurship,” NAE found that 2.9 million foreign-born entrepreneurs generated $65.5 billion in business income in 2014 alone. In that same year, immigrants made up more than 20 percent of all entrepreneurs in the country, despite representing just 13 percent of the population overall.
Also flipping the script on how we tend to talk about immigrants is NAE’s assertion that foreign-born entrepreneurs were instrumental in the country’s recovery from the Great Recession. “Between 2007 and 2011, a period when the country struggled to create new jobs, immigrant entrepreneurs played a large role founding new businesses in several key states,” said the report. “Foreign-born entrepreneurs started 44.6 percent of new businesses in California during that period, as well as 42 percent of new businesses in New York State.”
“The fact is that Americans value immigrants,” NAE executive director Jeremy Robbins told me. “We fundamentally know that our great competitive advantage in the world is that we’re the place we’re the place people want to come to. When you look at the strongest nations in the world, they are aging societies with no great potential for immigration like the U.S.—it’s a strength because, for instance, we don’t just need Ph.D.s, highly skilled doctors and surgeons, but also home health aides.”
“Immigration is not a panacea to solve our country’s economic woes,” Robbins said, “but, when you look at Social Security, Medicaid and other structural programs in this country, immigrants pay way more into those systems than they take out.”
There’s no doubt that’s true about legal immigrants. And though there are competing analyses about whether unlawfully present immigrants contribute more to the economy than they cost in education and health expenses, what cannot be denied is that, according to the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, illegal immigrants contribute more than $11.6 billion to state and local coffers each year and pay an average 8 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes.
The institute estimates that if comprehensive immigration reform were to pass, the combined state and local tax contributions of our 11 million unauthorized immigrants would increase by more than $2 billion.
In this context, the broken immigration system should be seen as a puzzle—one that, once solved, will reward our country with brains and money.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.