Why Regional Economies Need Immigration Reform

shutterstock_84639565Comprehensive immigration reform and its array of issues is a hot topic of discussion these days at the national level. Yet while those in Washington continue crafting proposals, states  are most impacted by the country’s current outdated immigration system and are making the economic and moral case for reform, as a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs report highlights. 

For particular regions – such as the Midwest,  – to remain globally competitive, they must consider : pre-K education, universities, infrastructure, an effective political system, efficient capital markets, government investment in research, strong intellectual property laws, a transparent tax code, employer and worker flexibility, and a plentiful supply of skilled labor. Immigration, whether or not the local communities agree, plays a crucial role in economic competitiveness. Local leaders who see immigration as an important ingredient in the competitiveness recipe are charting a course towards prosperity for their communities. Specifically, the report asks and answers the question: “How exactly do immigrants contribute to U.S. competitiveness?”

“Immigrant scientists help keep American research and development on the cutting edge. Foreign-born inventors and engineers pioneer new technologies, sometimes generating entire new industries and millions of high-paying jobs. Foreign-born entrepreneurs and investors make the U.S. economy more dynamic. Foreign-born scholars and teachers help make our universities the envy of the world. Foreign-born doctors and nurses keep our hospitals and clinics in the top rank.”

While the report focuses on examples from the Midwest, the intersections of U.S. economic competitiveness and the need for immigration reform are evident from coast to coast and throughout the heartland. In a post-industrial knowledge economy such as the United States, there is aneed not only to cultivate a larger crop of highly educated persons  but at to attract and retain high-skilled individuals and entrepreneurs from abroad . The goal of a workforce that meets our economic and societal needs is the key to global competitiveness. Addressing high-skilled pathways to migration as part of comprehensive immigration reform will help sustain our country’s immediate needs for high-skilled workers, particularly in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and in other areas such as healthcare. On the other hand, comprehensive education reform, in part to strengthen STEM education at all levels of secondary and post-secondary education, is part of a long-term strategy for continued competitiveness.

Economists, social scientists, business leaders, and a broad range of other experts agree that innovation is the key to growing the economy and creating jobs. And the key to innovation is a skilled workforce and entrepreneurship. With this in mind, the report makes many recommendations for comprehensive reforms as it relates to the needs of economic regions – particularly the Midwest. In particular, the report suggests addressing the need to build and strengthen a world-class skilled workforce, facilitating the needs of foreign-born and home-grown entrepreneurs who will create jobs in the region and spur further economic growth, and encouraging STEM students.

In addition to high-skilled immigration, the report also discusses less-skilled workers as an additional critical component to a region’s economic competitiveness. Specifically:

Immigrant workers build our houses, produce our food, run our hotels and restaurants, staff our hospitals, look after our children, and care for our elderly. They sustain U.S. agriculture, picking berries and pruning trees in warmer months, milking cows and tending livestock all year long. Many different types of service workers enhance our quality of life and augment the productivity” of others in higher skill occupations and industries.

Beyond the economic needs for immigration reform, the report also describes the moral case for immigration reform. As the authors state, “economic reasons are hardly the only reason the nation needs to fix the broken immigration system. Equally compelling, more so for some people, is the moral case for immigration reform.” Specifically, they assert comprehensive reform must address human rights, the golden rule, the many facets that led to millions coming to the U.S. without documentation, the dignity of work, the sanctity of families, and the need to alleviate the danger of a two-tier society of those with access and those who are excluded.

Meanwhile, as far as the nation’s outdated immigration system goes, the authors of the report ask: “Where does this leave…regions whose future competitiveness depends on a rational, functioning immigration system?” Their answer: “It leaves us high and dry – economically hamstrung, wasting invaluable human capital and increasingly frustrated by a political impasse that violates our values and ideals.”

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