The Fundamentals: Immigrants Power the Superpower

Photo by Elias Castillo on Unsplash

What is the role of migrants and refugees in the American economy? A Brookings Institution panel held four days before the midterms aimed to answer that question against a backdrop of election-tinged rhetoric around President Trump’s longed-for border wall and a misinformation campaign surrounding the group of Central American asylum-seekers making their way through Mexico. The conclusion was relatively simple, given the complex nature of the ongoing national conversation. Migrants and refugees boost the American economy, and we couldn’t be a world superpower without them.

In many so-called high-talent cities or regions, the San Francisco Bay Area for example, the labor force is divided into two tiers. One is made up of “fundamental work”—work that’s necessary for other kinds of work to continue—including janitorial or custodial work, construction, food service, and bus transportation through Silicon Valley tech campuses. In the other tier are highly educated and highly paid workers, like the engineers and developers stretching out across those bus seats. As panelist Michael Clemens, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, put it, “American master chefs literally do not have a job without dishwashers. American cardiac surgeons literally have no job without the people keeping the hospital clean and sanitary.”

Americans who do fundamental work are often part of a lower socio-economic class, and it can appear cruel to introduce competition for these positions in the form of migrant labor. However, these fundamental workers aren’t just units of labor, as economic valuation so often posits them. They are also consumers across the national economy. They, like the rest of us, are spending money in local businesses, paying local, state, and federal taxes, and generally contributing to the economy at every level. Rather than taking jobs away, an increase in immigration results in an increase in available jobs. Highly educated immigrants may work at start-ups or in high-tech fields that offer available positions to mid-level or highly skilled workers. Low-skilled immigrants provide an economic boost that results in an increase in the kinds of jobs that exist only because of the availability of cheap labor.

There is a perception that in the immigration debate there necessarily winners and losers. For sure, increased immigration does result in some lost opportunity for others. No researcher denies that an influx of workers willing to be paid less and put up with unfair working conditions can damage the labor market in small communities. Most perceptions of immigrant labor, however, are wrong. Some pundits claim that today’s immigrants simply aren’t interested in assimilating, in becoming part of traditional American society. This rhetoric simply isn’t true. As the Brookings speakers highlighted, rates of assimilation into American norms and cultural practices are the same now as ever. In fact, undocumented immigration status is the largest barrier to cultural assimilation. On the other hand, documentation status doesn’t have a significant effect on an immigrant’s labor value. Each immigrant, documented or not, has a massive net present value to the federal coffers—to the tune of $259,000. This is purely in tax revenue and other direct sources, and doesn’t factor in that these people are spending money in their communities and may employ other people who contribute to federal revenue independently.

One piece of the American cultural fabric that conservatives love to tout is a sense of entrepreneurship. In fact, that entrepreneurial spirit is largely motivated by immigrants and refugees. Today, one of every 3.5 domestic patents is issued to an immigrant worker. Of the eighty-seven US startups valued at $1 billion or more, forty-four of them, or 51 percent, had at least one immigrant founder. In addition, 71 percent of those same companies had at least one immigrant responsible for growth and innovation in a key management position. However so many immigrants, especially entering the US from the south, never have the chance to put their entrepreneurial drive to work in the US.

Immigration is a hot button issue of the day, but is it a humanist issue? I argue yes. Humanists are invested in recognizing and affirming the dignity of each human being. So much of the rhetoric surrounding this battle characterizes migrants and refugees as something less than human, or at least less human than those born on US soil. It’s our responsibility as ethical leaders to subscribe to the facts surrounding the value that immigrants bring to our communities and continue to advocate for the dignity of all.