State Level Immigration Legislation and the Essential Economy

shutterstock_13172023We often take for granted the important role “behind the scenes” workers – farm labor, restaurant work, and home health care – play in driving our economy. That’s one of the many conclusions of a new report from the Essential Economy Council, which studied the economic and social value of industries that make up what they have coined  the “essential economy.” The report identifies six industrial sectors important to our daily way of life, including: agriculture and poultry; hospitality and restaurants; light construction and landscaping; personal care and assisted living; building maintenance and facilities service; and distribution and logistics. For the state of Georgia, the essential economy is a significant component of the state’s overall economy. In particular, the essential economy contributed 12 percent ($49 billion) to Georgia’s GDP in 2010; contributed over $114 million in sales tax in 2011; employed just under one million out of 3.7 million workers in Georgia in 2011; and is present in every country in the state.

While the report highlights the importance of the essential economy, its conclusions and recommendations primarily suggest we need further research and data on the various nuances and key metrics of the economy.

What we do know is that immigrants comprise a significant share of the workforce in industries within the essential economy. Therefore, one conclusion we may draw from such a study about the essential economy’s importance is that state policies that pose obstacles to immigrants also pose obstacles to a robust economy. Consider the following facts and data about Georgia’s foreign-born workforce:

  • Immigrants comprise an increasing proportion of Georgia’s civilian employed workforce: 3.4 percent in 1990; 8.7 percent in 2000; and 13.5 percent in 2010.
  • Of all workers age 25 and older without a high school degree in Georgia in 2009, 36.7 percent (142,970) were immigrants. Immigrant comprised 12.9 percent of college educated workers age 25 and older.
  • In 2010, undocumented immigrants were seven percent of Georgia’s overall workforce, but have a much larger presence in certain industries of the essential economy. For example, experts estimate that 40 to 50 percent of workers in agriculture, which is Georgia’s largest industry, are undocumented.

Over the past several years, state-level lawmakers who proposed “enforcement-only” or “attrition-through-enforcement” legislation as the only way to approach their state’s undocumented population have inflicted a wound on their own state’s economy. As explicit examples, we need only look to the economic, human, and social devastation that 2010 and 2011 legislation such as Arizona’s SB 1070, Alabama’s HB 56, and Georgia’s HB 87 caused within their own states. Indeed, these examples are the economic equivalent of a state cutting its own nose off to spite its face.

As this new report suggests, the essential economy’s goods and services output are crucial to everyone’s way of life. To intentionally drive out a group that makes up a sizeable component of the essential economy’s workforce is short-sighted and cruel, but ultimately is also bad for business of any kind.

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