Despite being a country built by immigrants, the US hasn’t always gotten it right on immigration policy.
The Naturalization Act of 1795 reserved naturalized citizenship for only people with white skin. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suppressed the flow of immigrants from Asia. The Immigration Act of 1924 limited immigration of non-Northern Europeans in order to preserve what it referred to as the ideal American homogeneity.
These policies were driven by fear instead of logic and repealing them has coincided with economic and cultural booms. But the work’s not over yet. Reform is needed once again. Immigration can be easier, safer, and more efficient—and the economy would benefit as a result.
Emotions rarely make good arguments, but numbers do, and the benefits of immigration can and should be seen by their economic impact. The findings of such a perspective are stark: immigrants don’t take jobs, but create them; immigrants don’t burden a society, but revitalize it.
According to a 2017 study, immigrants made up less than 14 percent of the US population, but in the same year, nearly 30 percent of all new entrepreneurs were immigrants. Apple, Amazon, and Google were all founded by either immigrants or children of immigrants. Those aren’t exceptions, they’re indicators: over 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants and in 2017, they accrued $5.5 trillion in revenue. If those companies were a country, they’d have the third biggest GDP in the world, behind only the US and China.
Wall Street isn’t the only place immigrants create a huge economic benefit; they play a key role in the success of Main Street, too. More than one in five small businesses are owned by immigrants and immigrants are 20 percent more likely to start a business than native-born citizens are. Immigrants own more than half of all the gas stations, dry cleaners, and grocery stores in the country, as well as a significant portion of restaurants and beauty salons. These are small businesses that grow local economies and revitalize communities, and they make up a critical part of the fabric of everyday society.
Immigrants are also solving a key problem in rural American cities by counteracting population shrinkage. Sustained population loss can close hospitals, shutter schools, and starve local businesses. Rural American cities are the hardest hit. But that’s precisely where more and more immigrants are choosing to settle. By doing so they’re bringing skilled labor, new businesses, culture, and cash back into the areas that need them most.
Most immigrants come to America during their prime working and reproductive years. The healthcare system will become increasingly dependent on this labor pool as the Baby Boomers retire. And their contribution to payroll taxes could single-handedly save Social Security.
Refugees provide a similar benefit. A study by the US Department of Health and Human Services found that refugees in the US have had a net positive fiscal impact of $63 billion over the last decade, leaving one to wonder who, exactly, is saving whom?
Even undocumented immigrants play a major part in the economy. A 2016 study found that if all undocumented immigrants in the US were suddenly removed, GDP would immediately fall by 1.4 percent, and ultimately 2.6 percent, reducing cumulative GDP over ten years by $4.7 trillion.
Meanwhile, a sequence of reports by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation looked at the economic impact of providing a path to citizenship for those undocumented immigrants. It estimated such a move would result in slashing federal budget deficits by $1 trillion and increasing GDP by 5.4 percent over the next 20 years.
People you can’t see can be easy to ignore. Numbers are a different matter. And with numbers these big, the US can’t afford to ignore immigration reform.
Japan has long held a tough stance on immigration, largely in the interests of preserving its cultural homogeneity. But all that culture can’t fight math: Japan’s birth rate has dropped to 1.4 children per woman, woefully short of the replacement rate of 2.1. The population is falling by almost half a million people per year. These factors, combined with the largest proportion of people over the age of 65, are placing significant stress on Japan’s economy, workforce, and social services.
Without immigrants, Qatar would look much like it did in the 1980s: a wealthy but relatively undeveloped speck of the map with around 200,000 residents. Today, thanks to immigration, its population has soared to over two million and the country is leveraging a massive workforce of over a million foreigners to build stadiums for the 2022 World Cup.
Roughly 80 percent of the people living in Qatar are foreign-born and immigrants constitute 90 percent of the workforce. But the government can’t withstand these levels of immigration without withholding the common rights of Qatari citizenship, such as healthcare and higher education. As a result, immigrants are allowed only on a temporary basis and they have few rights or protections. This has led to the creation of a concrete lower-class, one which has experienced major abuses and squalid conditions.
A model that creates second-class citizens is not a sustainable one.
“Canadians are born all over the world, it just sometimes takes them a bit of time to get here,” says Wayne Potoroka, the mayor of Dawson City, a town in the Canadian Yukon. That attitude is part of the reason why Canada consistently ranks as the best country in the world to be an immigrant. But it’s not all maple syrup: Canada understands that immigration provides the surest path to the prolonged solvency of its generous social programs. With a large territory, a small population, and a geography that comes with enormous natural borders, Canada is ideally positioned to welcome immigrants—and welcome them on their own terms.
The US would be wise to take notes from its neighbor to the north and treat immigrants for what they are: a precious resource to be fostered—not turned away or dehumanized.
Secure borders are a critical component of contemporary society, but crossing them should not constitute a crime. Making unofficial border crossings a civil offense (rather than a criminal offense) would have an enormous and immediate impact on immigration policy.
Firstly, it would put an end to inhumane and costly detention facilities, replacing them with smarter, cheaper, and more effective alternatives like electronic monitoring and social work. Secondly, it would separate issues of immigration and law enforcement, thereby reducing the burden on the court system, increasing the likelihood of undocumented immigrants reporting crimes. It would also allow agencies like Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to focus on serious crimes like smuggling and trafficking.
If those who wish to reform immigration look only to our own borders, they risk treating symptoms instead of causes. An increased number of asylum-seeking refugees are arriving at the US border because of immense hardship and/or persecution in their country of origin.
A calculated and compassionate package of foreign aid to a specific area, such as Central America’s Northern Triangle, can improve conditions and reduce the outflow of migrants. Furthermore, this aid can fight the nightmarish conditions immigrants experience before they ever reach the US: as many as 20,000 prospective immigrants are kidnapped every year during their journey, according to Amnesty International. Others die along the way. Instances of transnational crime associated with the corridors of migration (abuse, trafficking, smuggling, and corruption) need to be addressed with a multinational apparatus.
Immigration involves bureaucracy, and bureaucracy involves waste. Policies which make immigration easier and more efficient are simple to enact and quick to take effect. Widening the circumstances for asylum to include victims of gang violence and domestic abuse can be done overnight. Reducing application fees and paperwork for the nine million green card holders in the US would streamline paths to legal citizenship. Waste in the visa system (which caps the number of visas issued to any particular country) can be slashed by redistributing any unused visas to some of the four million people on waiting lists who are seeking to reunify with their families. These are just a few low-cost, high-impact adjustments that don’t seek to reinvent the wheel.
Reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy would allow children brought into the country illegally to avoid deportation and apply for work permits. This isn’t a random get-out-of-jail-free card. The eligibility requirements narrow the policy’s focus down to precisely the type of worker America wants: young and education-seeking, with no criminal record.
DACA has provided protection for some 800,000 people who have gone on to establish more businesses and make more meaningful contributions to the economy. Reinstating and expanding this policy would increase the program’s economic benefit, and also offer a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US.
Many of the fears surrounding immigration don’t have to do with immigration at all, but integration. When integration fails, cultural friction prevails. A report by the New American Economy outlined inclusivity, economic empowerment, and community engagement as critical pillars of integration. An agency such as the Office of New Americans, which is run on a state-by-state basis, can tackle precisely this issue, offering immigrants English lessons, civics classes, community links, and employment-focused trainings. Furthermore, these offices can offer legal support and consultation services that are critical when navigating the bureaucratic processes associated with immigration.
A smooth flow of immigrants is crucial for the continued economic success of the United States. Policymakers would be wise to do the math.