Returning to our Immigration 101 course, the topic for this blog post is, “Do immigrants help or hurt the economy?” Another way of asking this question is, “Are new immigrants a burden on the country or do they make an economic (as well as other types of) contribution.”
Before we take a look at the economic data, I thought that this study by the Pew Research Center was interesting. It found that the majority of white evangelicals, about 60%, believe that immigrants are a burden on the country. The same study shows that white mainline Protestants, non-Hispanic Catholics and Black Protestants, are all more or less split down the middle, with about 50 % believing that immigrants are a burden on the economy and the other 50% believe that immigrants strengthen our country. Of those with no religious affiliation, 40% believe immigrants to be a burden; over 50% believe immigrants to strengthen the country, with just about 5% undecided. Over 80% of Hispanic Catholics on the other hand believe that immigrants make a contribution to the country; with the rest undecided believing that they are a burden. In other words, in spite of very clear teaching on the subject of, “Welcoming the Stranger”, (see earlier blog posts) we Christians are very divided on how we view and how we treat immigrants.
First let’s take up the question, “Do immigrants take jobs from US citizens?” This is a good and fair question. If you are asking if there is an undocumented immigrant somewhere working as a hotel maid, with a landscaping company or in some other job that perhaps a US citizen might well be interested in, then the answer is yes, of course this is happening. But if the question is are immigrants taking jobs in massive or even significant numbers from US citizens, jobs that US citizens are desirous of doing, then the answer is certainly no. Immigrants have historically taken jobs that the working class is not interested in.
I sometimes call them the “Three D” jobs: the Dirty, Difficult and Dangerous jobs. Today these would be jobs such as farm workers, maintenance workers, construction workers, food preparation, work in slaughter houses and maids. These are necessary jobs and we should certainly afford these workers the dignity that they deserve, but these jobs are often hard to fill due to the working conditions and low salaries.
Andrew Sum, an economist at Northeastern University in Boston, says that the presence of immigrant labor has in fact displaced some low-skilled US workers. But Sum though would concede that the U.S. economy is larger and growing faster, due to the presence of the undocumented immigrants, and that most US citizens with higher job skills are better off for their presence. “Without the immigrants, we would have a decline in labor force of 3 to 4 percent,” he said. “We couldn’t have grown nearly as much as we did in the ’90s if we didn’t have immigrants. And in the last few years our growth would have been slower.”
Immigrant workers “create almost as many” jobs as they occupy, “and maybe more,” said Madeleine Sumption, policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, which is funded by a range of foundations, corporations and international organizations. The consensus that immigrant workers expand the U.S. economy is broad, and crosses party lines. In 2005, the White House of Republican President George W. Bush remarked on the fact in one of its annual economic reports to Congress.
There is general broad agreement that while immigrant labor does push down the wages of a small sector of the economy; the overall effect is to increase average wages for US-born workers.
Another good question that is often asked is: “Do immigrants pay taxes?” And the straight up answer is yes, they do. There is the mistaken impression that immigrant workers are being paid under the table in cash. The truth is that an immigrant newly arrived in the USA will find the place in her or his destination city where one can get ahold of the fake social security card, that is necessary to present to any employer. As such, all taxes that you and I pay, withholding, social security, sales, property tax are paid by the undocumented worker.
Regarding the general economic contribution of immigrants, the state of Texas conducted the first real study to measure the impact of undocumented workers on the state’s budget. Here is what they found: “In the first time that a state has done a comprehensive analysis of the impact of undocumented workers on a state’s budget and economy, the absence of the state’s approximately 1.4 million undocumented immigrants in fiscal 2005 would have been a loss to our state’s gross state product of $17.7 billion. Undocumented immigrants contributed some 1.58 billion to state coffers and used in services only $1.16 billion.”
Daniel Griswold, of the non-partisan Cato Institute writes that, “Immigration always has been controversial in the United States. More than two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin worried that too many German immigrants would swamp America’s predominantly British culture. In the mid-1800s, Irish immigrants were scorned as lazy drunks, not to mention Roman Catholics. At the turn of the century a wave of “new immigrants” — Poles, Italians, Russian Jews — were believed to be too different ever to assimilate into American life. Today the same fears are raised about immigrants from Latin America and Asia, but current critics of immigration are as wrong as their counterparts were in previous eras.”
Immigration and immigrants are the backbone of this country. In the 2010 census only 0.9%, less than one percent, of us checked the box, “Native American.” This means that 99% of us came from somewhere else. This means that we are a nation made up of almost entirely of immigrants. Yet 236 years after the founding of this country, we still have not figured out what to do with the immigrant.
Our faith teaches us that all human beings are brothers and sisters and that by welcoming the immigrant, we welcome Jesus. We also can be greatly enriched by getting to know people who are different than us. Let us all work for more just immigration policies. Let us live every day Jesus’s words in Matthew 25: 35f, “When I was hungry you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me to drink, a prisoner and you visited me, a stranger and you welcomed me….”