Immigration has been a contentious issue since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and declared this land their land.  Therefore, it is not unusual that the issue of immigration has been raised recently, most notably with the passage of the law in Arizona requiring police officers to check the immigrant status of individuals.  Many politicians from around the nation have proposed ordinances for their states or localities declaring them a non-sanctuary site or emulating the new law in Arizona.

Arguments against the most recent influx of undocumented immigrants range from jobs being taken away from American workers to undocumented immigrants leeching off the system and/or bringing crime into the area.  In addition, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of births by undocumented immigrants in the U.S., prompting many to question whether the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to those born in the United States, should be altered.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, undocumented immigrants accounted for 1 in 12 births in the U.S. in 2008.  While there is room for debate on immigration, a fundamental fact remains; a vast majority of these individuals come to the United States to work.  Moreover, we as a nation have become increasingly dependent on these individuals to ensure that we have low-cost produce year-round, gardening services, house cleaning and other low cost services.

While many of us may criticize these individuals for not speaking English or argue that they are taking jobs away from Americans, English-speaking U.S. citizens are generally not lining up around the block to take these jobs, even in these tough economic times.  I suspect that the United Farm Workers “Take My Job” campaign has resulted in very few current field workers being displaced by unemployed U.S. workers.

Photo Credit: Flickr User Scazon

While the Arizona law was considered to be very reactionary and a vast majority of its statutes were dismissed by a federal judge, Utah has proposed a novel solution.  Rather than try to expel undocumented immigrants, Utah proposes to issue a guest worker visa instead.  This guest visa would be similar to the Bracero Program implemented by the U.S. and Mexico between 1942 and 1964, which allowed individuals from Mexico to work in the U.S. and then return to Mexico.  While the proposed law in Utah would face challenges—mainly that states cannot issue visas—it does offer a practical solution based on the premise that many firms would not be able to function without these workers.

There are numerous studies citing the economic benefits or lack thereof of undocumented immigrant workers.  It is still unclear from these studies whether these immigrants provide more in taxes than they draw in government services.  However, there are a couple of points worth noting regarding immigrants:

  • A quarter of engineering and technology companies started in the U.S. between 1995 and 2005 had at least one foreign-born founder.
  • In 2005, immigrant-founded companies produced $52 billion in revenue and employed 450,000 workers nationwide.
  • Almost 80 percent of immigrant-founded companies were in two industries: software and innovation/manufacturing services.
  • In Florida, Hispanics were the leading immigrant group in terms of the number of companies founded.  In Massachusetts, Israelis led.  In New Jersey, the leaders were Indians.

While we may find it easy to blame immigrants for a variety of economic and societal ills, the overall contribution of immigration has been a vastly positive experience for the U.S., both in terms of economics and society.

Photo Credit: Manny Proebster