At a forum held yesterday by the Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution, a panel of experts sought to “distinguish economic reality from myth” in the often fact-free and emotion-laden debate over how immigration affects the U.S. economy and U.S. workers. The forum, entitled “Crossing Borders: From Myth to Sound Immigration Policy”—as well as an accompanying report, Ten Economic Facts About Immigration—served to refute the shrill and empirically baseless claims of nativist groups that immigrants are stealing jobs from Americans while draining the public treasury.

In fact, the experts on the panel agreed that:

  • “On average, immigrants raise the overall standard of living of American workers by boosting wages and lowering prices.” There are three reasons for this. First of all, “immigrants and U.S.-born workers generally do not compete for the same jobs; instead many immigrants complement the work of U.S. employees and increase their productivity.” Secondly, “businesses adjust to new immigrants by opening stores, restaurants, or production facilities to take advantage of the added supply of workers.” And, third, “immigrant workers enhance the purchasing power of Americans by lowering prices of ‘immigrant-intensive’ services like child care, gardening, and cleaning services.”
  • “Taxes paid by immigrants and their children—both legal and unauthorized—exceed the costs of the services they use.” Although the children of immigrants are “costly” in terms of the educational and health services they utilize, this is true of all children. But children grow up to be working, taxpaying adults who pay back these expenses over the course of their lifetimes. Nevertheless, it is the federal government which ends up being the big winner in terms of collecting these tax revenues, while “education and health services for immigrant children are generally state liabilities.” The experts acknowledged that “states may be burdened with costs that will only be recouped over a number of years…”
  • “Immigrants start new businesses and file patents at higher rates than U.S.-born citizens.” Immigrants “are 30 percent more likely to form new businesses than U.S.-born citizens,” and “among people with advanced degrees, immigrants are three times more likely to file patents than U.S.-born citizens.” These “investments in new businesses and in research may provide spillover benefits to U.S.-born workers by enhancing job creation.” In addition, many large and successful U.S. companies—such as Intel, Google, and Yahoo!—were founded or co-founded by immigrants.

The Brookings forum and report draw much-needed attention to the economic contributions which immigrants make as workers, taxpayers, and entrepreneurs. Moreover, as the speakers at the forum emphasized, the contributions of immigrants would be even greater were our immigration system not so unresponsive to the needs of the U.S. economy. As it stands now, the U.S. immigration system provides insufficient visas for both less-skilled and highly skilled immigrants. As a result, a significant share of the demand for less-skilled workers is filled by unauthorized immigrants, at the same time that many highly skilled foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities are forced to leave the country after receiving their educations. Needless to say, this is an illogical situation produced by a broken immigration system. The forum participants all agreed that revamping that broken system should be among the highest of priorities for the Obama administration and Congress.

Photo by borman818.