Ali Noorani: America needs immigrants – they are vital to our success and prosperity

President Trump would like us to believe that immigrants are a burden on our country, costing us billions of dollars a year to support and absorb, and harming us with drug smuggling and other crimes. But in fact, the jobs report released by the U.S. Labor Department Friday tells us a different story – and explains why America needs immigrants.

“Our country is FULL!” the president tweeted April 7, saying the “Mexico must apprehend all illegals and not let them make the long march up to the United States.”

President Trump even threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican products coming to the U.S. starting Monday if that nation did not take steps to reduce the flow of unauthorized immigrants.

US MAKES DEAL WITH MEXICO ON TARIFFS, IMMIGRATION, TRUMP ANNOUNCES

But the president announced via Twitter Friday night that the tariffs were “indefinitely suspended” because the U.S. and Mexico had signed an agreement under which “Mexico, in turn, has agreed to take strong measures to….stem the Tide of Migration through Mexico, and to our Southern Border. This is being done to greatly reduce, or eliminate, illegal immigration coming from Mexico and into the United States.”

Yet despite the president’s focus on keeping immigrants out, what has been true throughout our nation’s history remains true today: immigrants are the key to America’s economic growth, success and prosperity. And immigrants are vital if we are to maintain continued American leadership in a broad range of businesses and innovation.

The initial takeaway from the May jobs report that came out Friday is that America’s mighty economic engine continues humming along, showing the 104th straight month with an increase in jobs.

With the national unemployment rate now just 3.6 percent, we are looking at the real possibility that in a few months the current economic expansion could become the longest on record, surpassing the stretch from March 1991 to March 2001.

The fact is that in the not-to-distant future, America will face a serious demographic challenge. Not too many people – as President Trump would have us believe – but too few.

OK, so what does this have to do with the need for new immigrants?

The fact is that in the not-to-distant future, America will face a serious demographic challenge. Not too many people – as President Trump would have us believe – but too few.

Decreasing fertility, an aging population, and labor shortages endanger America’s long-term economic vitality. To address the structural challenges that will bedevil American competitiveness, we need a prudent immigration policy for the 21st century.

In the past, we could rely on birth rates to power growth, but according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control, the general fertility rate in the U.S. was down 2 percent from 2017 to 2018.

That may not sound like a big drop, but it is. The total fertility rate was the lowest on record and below the rate at which a population replaces itself over time.

To make matters worse, the population isn’t just stagnating, it’s aging. Baby boomers – the single largest population cohort in history – are rapidly becoming booming elders. In just a decade, older Americans are set to outnumber children for the first time in history.

This is not a sustainable trajectory for the U.S. economy.

What has long separated the U.S. from nearly every other economy in the world is immigration. Last year immigration accounted for nearly half of population growth in the U.S.

And while the Trump administration pushes hardline immigration policies and questions the merits of immigration writ large, in many parts of the country economic growth is outpacing growth in the labor force, producing serious labor shortages.

America has 1 million more job openings than we do unemployed workers. We’ve had fewer than one unemployed person per available job for at least a year.

It’s a phenomenon that is not striking all parts of the nation equally.

Our cities and their nearby suburbs are continuing to exert a magnetic force on our population, drawing people away from small towns and rural areas that are serving as canaries in the coal mine for this demographic crisis.

For example, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) arrested more than 30 undocumented immigrants last year, businesses are struggling to fill 300 open positions.

About six hours to the east, researchers at Ball State University in Indiana released a report showing that since 2000, a full quarter of that state’s population growth came from immigrants.

But things could have been worse. From 1990-2016, 17 counties in Indiana saw a loss of population even though they saw an increase in their immigrant population. Population losses would have been an even bigger problem without immigration.

What’s lost in our current immigration debate is an important fact: Immigrants are job-makers, not job-takers. Studies clearly demonstrate that the economy is not a Darwinian zero-sum game.

U.S.-born workers typically take jobs that require higher levels of education and skills and pay higher wages, while immigrants tend to fill jobs that require lower skill levels.

Immigrants are also more likely than native-born Americans to launch a business. More than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were created by immigrants or their children.

Immigrant families matter as well. First and foremost, they provide comfort and well-being for newcomers. They also provide social networks that enable immigrants to find jobs and child care, integrate into society, and even receive loans to launch a company. We can’t have a functioning immigration system and a thriving society without valuing family.

Between now and 2035, all growth in the U.S. workforce will come from immigrants and their children. That means that without continuing immigration, our economy would be in big trouble.

It’s time for Democrats and Republicans to find common ground around immigration reforms that ensure our workforce grows with our economic and social needs.

This requires rebuilding our legal immigration system to provide a stable, reliable workforce – from the skilled farmworker to the skilled engineer.

If we are to act in our national self-interest, that means that no one who graduates from an American university with a degree in science technology, engineering or math should be kicked out of the country and sent to a competitor nation. We need them here.

And no American business trying to hire construction workers should shutter because government policy makes it too hard to hire newcomers.

Sensible immigration reform also needs to recognize the critical importance of immigrants working legally but not permanently. This includes young immigrants brought to the U.S. without authorization who are now protected by the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, as well as those with Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure visas.

And sensible immigration reform needs to create an opportunity for immigrants in the U.S.  without authorization to meet certain conditions – including but not limited to passing background checks and learning English – and then start the process of becoming full-fledged, fully contributing Americans.

Above all, immigration reform should send an unambiguous message: The U.S. remains open to those who want to contribute and provide the dynamism that has powered our growth since the country’s founding.

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While Friday’s positive jobs figures evince the current strength of our economy, our prospects moving forward will depend on whether we remain a nation of immigrants.

The bottom line is that admitting immigrants to the United States and creating a path to citizenship for them is not simply an act of compassion or charity. In addition to being the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. It will benefit our country and our entire population far into the future, just as immigrants and their descendants have done throughout our history. 

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