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Guest opinion: Overheated immigration debate threatens economy

By Vijay Mathur - | May 12, 2022

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Vijay Mathur

The politics of immigration comes alive again, particularly among GOP politicians and their supporters. Surveys show concerns among Americans about the unusual flood of immigrants and asylum seekers at the southern border, especially from Central American countries, and the inability to cope with the heavy inflow.

There is a lot of talk about the problem but no proposal for long-term solutions. Some have suggested policies such as deportation, continuing the implementation of Title 42 restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and keeping immigrant hopefuls in Mexico. However, these policies are a Band-Aid to the problem as they do not address the long-term forces, push and pull factors, that are driving migration to the United States. Many countries in the European Union are also experiencing the same situation with a heavy inflow of migrants from Afghanistan, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries plagued with violence and economic hardships. Everywhere, this inflow of immigrants is causing resentment due to concerns about demographic change.

It may be instructive to first look into the data for the United States before addressing the concerns of Americans. The Center for Immigration Studies on Oct. 5, 2021, reported doubling of immigration since 1990 and tripling since 1980. However, gains were the smallest since 1970 and even before COVID-19 gains plunged. More than two-thirds were legal immigrants with a decline in unauthorized foreign born, especially from Mexico. Most immigrants came from Mexico, India, China, Philippines and El Salvador. Foreign born in Utah were 8.6% of the population, most were Latino and white, and 43% were citizens.

This data reflects that foreign born have not overwhelmed the economy, even though the authorities at the southern border are burdened by the cases of migrants and asylum seekers. If the GOP politicians are worried about the southern border, they should provide more resources in the short term and work on long-term bipartisan solutions. The crowding problem at the southern border is not going away given the political and economic conditions in Central America and other undeveloped countries.

The pertinent question is, what is the contribution of immigrants to the economy? Are politicians concerned about their economic burden on the economy? Pew Research Center on Aug. 20, 2020, reported that 66% of Americans think that immigrants bring strength to the country. Using recent data from Bureau of Labor Statistics and American Community Survey, Peter G. Peterson Foundation reported on July 19, 2021, that foreign born labor force participation has been higher than that of the native born, and in most years since 2006 their unemployment rates have also been higher than that of the native born. Foreign born earn on average 89% of the weekly earnings of native born at all education levels, even though the American Immigration Council on Sept. 21, 2021, found that 33% of all immigrants have a college degree or more, the same as the percent of all native born.

The AIC also finds that immigrant-led households had $1.3 trillion spending power after taxes and paid $330.7 billion in federal taxes and $16.7 billion in state plus local taxes in 2019. Of all self-employed U.S. residents, immigrant business owners’ share of 22% generates $86.3 billion in business income.

This record should not create fear of immigration among the native born. They must convince their politicians to do the hard work to implement a more sensible immigration policy for the orderly flow of productive and work-seeking immigrants, including arrivals from Ukraine, especially when we are experiencing labor shortages. We will face the same labor market problems in the future, due to the decline in birth rates, increasing elderly population close to retirement age and the increasing toll on Social Security and Medicare.

It seems that politicians are playing upon the fear of demographic transition of some U.S. citizens. Former President Trump awakened this fear among his followers. Professor D. Coleman at Oxford University said in thew New York Times that this transition is challenging the ancestry of the national population, its culture and “self-perceived identity of the inhabitants.” However, it should be the solemn obligation of our current politicians to put this genie back in the bottle. Otherwise, if this toxic debate continues, the only future for the country is economic decline.

Mathur is former chairman and professor in the Economics Department and now emeritus professor at Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. He resides in Ogden.


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