Immigration has been a topic in the national conversation for decades if not centuries, but during the Obama administration the debate flared up to a particularly passionate degree. Following the great recession, many claimed that due to illegal immigration, working-class jobs were becoming ever-harder to find, and despite the 15.6 million new private-sector jobs that were created under the Obama administration during the 75 consecutive monthsof job growth that he oversaw, that prosperity didn’t reach all corners of America. Donald Trump made immigrants a target in his campaign, promising to build a wall along the US-Mexico border and to “make Mexico pay for it”. Although President-elect Trump is now planning to saddle the American taxpayer with the cost of the wall, many still support his hard-line stances on immigration, including a deportation force.
However, even as living-wage jobs continue to be a primary concern for people all across the country, it may actually be the case that mass deportations will harm the economy. Though it may seem counter-intuitive at first, establishing a stable path to citizenship- especially for children and adolescents born in America of undocumented parents- could bolster the economy and help create jobs for blue collar Americans. Let’s explore why this is the case.
Why Immigrants are the Real Job Creators
There is an unfortunate stereotype of immigrants in this country. Everyone has heard it from somewhere: the trope of immigrants who sneak into the country and mooch off services. This stereotype is unfortunate for multiple reasons- not least of which is that America’s entire historic foundation is built on immigration- but also because it is abjectly, wholly untrue. Immigrants are more likely to start and a small business (100 employees or less) than the average population. They’re actually so likely to start a small business that even though in 2007 first-generation immigrants made up only 16% of the population, they accounted for an outsized 18% of the small business-owning population and made up 30% of all small business growth (that’s $776 billion in sales in one year). Those immigrant-owned businesses employed 4.7 million Americans. In 2007 alone.
Starting businesses is hard work in one’s native country (much less in a new one), and as we can see, first-generation immigrants clearly are ready and willing to do the very kind of hard work America needs to revitalize its home towns and main streets. This only makes sense, as the same sort of drive that inspires a person to leave their homeland in search of a better life also pushes them to make their own fortune rather than relying on others for it. This is the kind of entrepreneurial, self-starter mindset that made America great from the very beginning, and will continue to make us great through the 21st century.
Strength in Numbers
Clearly, not every immigrant is going to start his or her own small business (just as not every American will do that either). Some coming to this country will work in blue collar jobs, and it is often in these situations that we see the most objective from native-born Americans. Claims that immigrants (especially undocumented immigrants) are undercutting American workers and stealing jobs have become especially loud over the last decade or so, and often, the solution presented is deportation.
However, consider for a moment if the opposite would actually help the situation more if a pathway to citizenship were presented. If a system were in place to naturalize undocumented men and women, given certain conditions (no criminal record for a number of years, possibly paying taxes beyond sales and property tax, etc)- naturalized immigrants would then be subject to the legal protections of native-born Americans. Coupled with a reinvigorated defense of labor unions, these naturalized immigrants and native-born Americans could band together and demand living wages from their employers.
Clearly, everyone wants an immigration system that works- and it is just as clear that ours has not been working for a long time. This is a multifaceted problem that requires a multi-pronged approach, and any pathway to citizenship would not be a fast one. But we must keep in mind that just because something feels like the obvious answer in our gut- “deport them all” is not only impractical to the point of impossibility, but will undermine the very goal we are trying to accomplish- rebuilding a foundation of good working class jobs throughout every state in the Union.
The Economic Case for the Pathway to Citizenship
The argument that undocumented immigrants do not pay taxes is also a myth. In fact, undocumented workers contribute an estimated $11.64 billion in state and local taxes. This comes from paying roughly 8% of their incomes to state and local municipalities in the form of sales tax and property taxes. For those keeping score at home, the top richest 1% of Americans only pay 5.4% of their incomes in similar ways, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Individual state tax revenues could jump by an extra $2.1 billion if a pathway to citizenship were opened. That’s a lot of money for schools and infrastructure that we’re missing out on every year!
The economic benefits are clear. Such a task would not be a small undertaking, and would not be an immediate change either. Such an undertaking would have to be measured and carefully monitored. But given the opportunities the United States has already missed out on, a pathway to citizenship- even one that is not across the board- is a financial boon we should not so easily dismiss.
Written by Daniel Kauder
Edited by Harpreet Chima and John Bogil