Look beyond the border

Immigration is a benefit to the national economy.

Uttam Das

Last Thursday, the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs held a panel discussion on immigration in Minnesota. It centered on a study titled âÄúThe Economic Impact of Immigrants in Minnesota;âÄù a joint effort by the instituteâÄôs Katherine Fennelly and Anne Huart. Immigration plays an increasingly important role in the American economy, society, culture and politics. However, certain stereotype perceptions still pervade. Immigrants comprise 7 percent of the population of Minnesota. However, the nationwide proportion is much higher at 13 percent. There were an estimated 334,000 immigrants in Minnesota in 2007. The study details the contributions of immigrant populations, highlighting their entrepreneurship, participation in the labor force, consumer spending, tax payments and cultural diversity. According to the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers, immigrants contribute $37 billion per year to the countryâÄôs economy. Immigrant-owned businesses generated $331 million in 2000 in Minnesota alone. As Professor Fennelly said, âÄúImmigration is a net economic gain for America.âÄù Her argument is that the immigrants complement native workers on the job, but they donâÄôt substitute or take their jobs. Even undocumented immigrants with no legal status contribute to the U.S. economy. According to one study by the Urban Institute, 55 percent of employers of undocumented immigrants withhold income, Social Security and Medicare taxes. Contrary to common perceptions, undocumented immigrants also pay retail, property, income and Social Security taxes through the federal Individual Taxpayers Identification Number. They contribute $8.5 billion in taxes each year to Social Security and Medicare. There are an estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. The number is 60,000 to 80,000 in the state of Minnesota, but the existing immigration and visa-processing system cannot sufficiently manage the demand for foreign laborers. Without legal means to secure a visa, migrant workers risk their lives to cross the borders illegally. Also, the lack of secure immigration creates prey of some immigrants to heinous human smugglers and traffickers. Mexico, the major source of cheap labor for the United States, is now considering an end to labor emigration 10 years from now, as a Mexican official informed the panel discussion. The Mexican economy is also suffering from an aging population. That means the supply of migrant labor from Mexico may not be available around 2020. If this happens, the United States has to find labor from other countries, such as South and Southeast Asia, alongside existing Central American and African sources. America has a growing need for low-skilled labor as well. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said that by 2016, an estimated 30 percent of all occupations will require low-skilled labor. Their requirement? On-the-job training. Key industries in Minnesota like hotels, restaurants, agriculture, construction, light manufacturing, retail and health care are experiencing labor shortages. The reason is an increase in the education level of native adults, who are less likely to take a âÄúlow-skilledâÄù job. The study recommended that the federal government overcome the existing failure in issuing visas to meet the increasing demand for foreign workers. Studies show that the majority of undocumented immigrants here are looking for an opportunity to obtain legal status. The Obama administration will take up immigration reform by early 2010. It will have to be pragmatic and consider the economic interest of the country as well as the safety and dignity of the immigrant population. Uttam Das welcomes comments at [email protected]