Editor’s note: This blog originally ran on September 3, 2012.
You can’t understand immigration without a basic understanding of the labor market. While some individuals choose—or are forced—to migrate for other reasons, such as refugees forced to flee persecution or individuals who relocate to reside with a family member, the vast majority of immigrants are pushed out of their country of origin by unemployment or underemployment and lured to a new country by the draw of economic opportunity.
Throughout the United States’ history, immigration levels have surged at times when the economy was booming, and thus creating more jobs than native-born citizens could fill, but immigrants have been less welcome during economic downturns. Given the economic challenges and relatively high unemployment rates of the last several years, the rhetoric that immigrants “steal jobs” from American citizens resonates with many.
With so many unemployed Americans, many believe that we should stop allowing new immigrants into the country: why let them take a job that an unemployed American could do, they ask? On one level, from a distinctly Christian perspective, I’m not sure that an American is any way more inherently worthy of meaningful work than someone born in another country. Even if they did have a unique right to work opportunities, though, the reality is that an immigrant working in the United States does not necessarily mean one less job for an American citizen. In fact, one immigrant working in the United States might create many more jobs for U.S. citizens.
That’s because the job market is not a static pie: more jobs are created when businesses thrive, and immigrants are disproportionately likely to be entrepreneurs, starting their own businesses—and often employing others in the process. In fact, 18% of Fortune 500 companies were begun by immigrants, including tech companies such as Google, Intel, and eBay, but also corporations in more traditional industries, such as Kraft, Proctor & Gamble, AT&T, Colgate-Palmolive, and Goldman Sachs. When you add in the children of immigrants, more than 200 of the top 500 American companies in terms of overall revenue were begun by first- or second-generation immigrants. Collectively, these companies employ more than 10 million people.
It’s not just large corporations that benefit from immigrant labor and ingenuity, either. 18% of small business owners in the U.S. are immigrants, meaning that immigrants are significantly more likely than U.S. citizens to start a small business.
The highly-skilled or the uniquely entrepreneurial immigrants who start tech companies aren’t the only ones who create jobs for Americans, either. The reality is that many American jobs depend upon others working in positions that most Americans are unwilling to do. Take the agricultural industry, for example: the reality is that, even in times of unemployment, most Americans are not willing to pick fruits and vegetables. For each immigrant who is willing to do this job, though (about three quarters of all agricultural workers in the U.S. are foreign-born) three to four other individuals have jobs at other points in the supply chain, such as those who manufacture and sell fertilizer or farm machinery, that would likely not exist (at least in the United States) if immigrants were not willing and allowed to accept employment in the fields.
It’s also important to note that, while immigrants form an important part of the labor supply in sectors that complement the jobs done by U.S. citizens, they also contribute to the demand for labor. That’s because, in addition to being workers, immigrants are also consumers. They rent or buy homes, shop, eat out, drive cars, and engage in nearly every other aspect of the American economy. Immigrants make up about 13% of the American population, and are probably responsible for a roughly similar share of the nation’s economic activity. Consider an economy like New York City, for example: were immigrants removed overnight, the city would both lose about 43% of its workers—likely forcing some companies to shut down, laying off U.S. citizen employees as well—and about 36% of its resident consumers.
Most Americans probably assume that, since labor markets and immigration are so intrinsically related, our immigration laws are tied to the needs of the economy. Unfortunately, they’re not: we have a set quota of immigrant visas available under the law each year that is entirely unresponsive to a dynamic labor market. The primary reason that we have so many immigrants present unlawfully in the U.S. is that, at times when the job market required many more workers in particular sectors of our economy than the native-born labor market could supply, our immigration laws still allowed a maximum of 5,000 employer-sponsored immigrant visas per year for all immigrants who are not considered “highly skilled.” Rather than let our entire economy suffer, our federal government (under both Republican and Democratic Administrations) looked the other way as individuals entered the country unlawfully or overstayed temporary visas.
Our national economy is in desperate need of a better, more market-sensitive immigration system. In keeping with our national values, we should also ensure that families are kept together in the migration process—current waits to lawfully reunite with family members can be more than two decades in some cases—and that America remains a safe haven for refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing persecution. Combined with efforts to secure our borders and to create a process by which those who are presently undocumented—who have been drawn in by economic opportunities for which our immigration system makes no visas available—could legalize their status, these sort of reforms to our visa system form the pillars of what elected officials call Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Such a policy is long overdue. To continue with our current system, as New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg argues, is “national suicide.”
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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