There’s a lot of conversation about immigration in America. Much of this is centered around the idea of “burdensome immigrants holding back our economy.” Statistics show that this idea is a myth. Intelligent immigration reform would boost the American economy through the contributions of educated, hard-working foreign-born citizens, many of whom fill niche gaps in a variety of fields. Understanding the nuances of this myth is the key to unlocking a better American immigration policy.
The Myth of the Burdensome Immigrant
The idea of the burdensome immigrant is wrong. Studies have shown time and time again that most immigrants pay more in taxes than they consume in benefits.
Most immigrants, including the DACA Dreamers and those on temporary visa, are ineligible to receive any welfare or benefit from the government, including medicaid and food stamps. By a wide margin, immigrants, unauthorized and otherwise, are contributing to the national economy while receiving none of the benefits that naturalized citizens enjoy.
Taking this a step farther, let us consider families of mixed-citizenship. This would typically include parents who are here illegally, with children who were born U.S. citizens. As such, these children have the right to access the same government benefits as any other American child. Yet, studies from as recently as 2013 show that, on average, these families use less of their entitlement benefits than native-born Americans:
“The rate at which non-citizens have used public benefit programs was less than that of U.S.-born citizens. For example, 32.5 percent of native-born citizen adults receive SNAP benefits compared to 25.4 percent of naturalized citizen adults and 29 percent of noncitizen adults. In addition to immigrants’ lower rate of SNAP usage, they also receive lower benefit values, costing the program less.” Source
The Notion of the Immigrant Flood: All Washed Up?
When we look at the big picture of immigration, the current proportion of immigrants is relatively low as compared to historical averages. The current U.S. foreign born population has reached approximately 43.5 million, making up 13.5% of the American population. In 1890, though, the immigrant population peaked out at 14.8%.
Of the 43.5 million immigrants living in America today, three-quarters of them are here legally.
The immigrant population helps to fill gaps in the American job system that, statistically, go unfilled by American workers. These exist at two ends of the spectrum: jobs that require intense schooling and high skill levels, and unskilled jobs for pennies on the dollar, which require difficult agricultural work that fuels our farming communities. According to a recent study by the International Monetary Fund, “Immigration significantly increases GDP per capita in advanced economies.”
Our Economy and the American Immigrant
With that in mind, let’s address some of the major economic boosts that a comprehensive legal immigration program would provide for America:
With skilled immigration comes entrepreneurship. Foreign-born residents are more likely to start their own businesses. Of startup companies valued at $1 billion in 2016, 55% of those were started by immigrants. Additionally, 40% of Fortune 500 companies are founded by immigrants or children of immigrants.
Immigrants contribute to the working age demographic of America. The citizen birth rate is continuing to fall. It is predicted that by 2035, the number of “U.S. born workers with U.S. born parents will shrink by eight million.” Immigrants contribute to a need for a growing workforce as previous generations move forth into retirement and old age.
Immigrants bring incredible innovation to American soil. Despite only making up 17% of the workforce, immigrants file for one-third of new patents and account for more than one-third of PhD workers in STEM fields. Without immigrants, we wouldn’t have the telephone, the elevator, blue jeans, or the White House.
Immigrants have proven more willing to move for work than native-born Americans. This contributes in several ways to the economy of America: “Immigration, as a consequence, has served to smooth out local booms and busts; by moving away from declining regions and into booming areas, immigrants help stabilize the economy and reduce the “mismatch” between local demand for labor and its supply. Immigrants’ willingness to move helps slow wage decline in stagnant regions and contributes to economic growth in booming ones.”
Immigrants are the ones caring for our aging population, our homes, and our families. Both authorized and unauthorized immigrants make up a large percentage of home service jobs, which include cleaning, food preparation, and gardening, as well as personal services such as child and elderly care. According to UC Berkeley's Center for Latin American Studies, “The increased presence of immigrants in this sector has made home services more affordable, which in turn has allowed more native-born women — especially highly educated women — to join the labor force or to increase their hours worked.”
The lasting legacy of legal immigration is one of innovation, imagination, and contribution to the American standard of living. It is undeniable and irrefutable that their continuing presence in our country is a necessary and wanted facet of our lives in the United States.
To continue perpetuating the myth of the burdensome immigrant is to do a disservice to ourselves and to the working immigrant, who has proven time and again that, on the whole, they are seeking opportunity and a chance to live out the fabled American Dream. This dream is not possible without the past, present, and future impact of intelligent, legal immigration.