Time and the Economics of Immigration
Terri E. Givens
Organizations who oppose immigration will point to studies that show that immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, are a drain on the system, particularly for education and healthcare. These organizations, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) tend to minimize what these immigrants pay in taxes as well as what they provide in terms of economic activity and growth. Pro-immigration groups, like the Immigration Policy Center, focus on the positive impact that immigrants have had on the U.S. economy, also noting that deporting all of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would reduce our GDP by $2.6 trillion dollars over 10 years.
In a country that was built on immigration, it is this debate that often animates our discussions around immigration and immigration policy. Personally, I get frustrated with these debates, because the anti-immigration organizations pick the data that supports their perspective, and the pro-immigration organizations do the same. The reality is that this is a story that has to be told over time. One hundred years ago, members of Congress were concerned about the flow of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and moved to restrict those flows. Yet, those immigrants became well-integrated and soon became valued citizens. They helped to build this country during very difficult times, including the World Wars, the Great Depression and the consolidation of the United States as a world military and economic power.
When Congress changed our immigration policy from one that focused on quotas, mainly for Northern and Western Europeans, to one that focused on preferences, including skills and a strong preference for family members of citizens, few foresaw the huge demographic impact that this would have on our country. With fewer restrictions on immigration from Asia, Africa and Latin America we have seen greater diversity in immigration ever since this important policy change. We have also seen ups and downs in our economy. One small part of this is that the kind of technological innovations that have come from immigrant entrepreneurs would have been much less likely if we hadn’t opened our doors to engineers from around the world.
Another example is the workers who have played an important role in the maintenance and rebuilding of infrastructure, housing, and construction. They have all helped to maintain the United States’ position as the top economy in the world. This does not mean that there aren’t problems with our immigration system. I firmly believe that providing opportunities for undocumented immigrants to get visas and work permits would give a boost to our economy. Workers would be able to come out of the shadows, hopefully get paid more reasonable wages, and lead to more job creation.
I also believe that any kind of regularization or amnesty needs to go along with comprehensive immigration reform that would provide a more reasonable number of visas to meet the demands of employers, while taking into account the concerns of organized labor and others who have a vested interest in these processes. This is going to be a difficult process, because there are many interests that have taken positions for and against reform, but all agree change is needed. It will take pressure from both inside and outside of Washington, DC to get Congress to move forward, but it is in everyone’s interest from both an economic and human perspective to push for change. As history has shown, America’s strength comes from our ability to adapt, grow and incorporate people from diverse backgrounds. We need not fear change, we can embrace it and maintain the economic engine which has been the envy of the world.