Immigrants have been vital to this nation’s success pre-COVID, and they will be key participants in ensuring the U.S. economy grows when the pandemic is over. Foreign born workers were instrumental in powering the consistent economic growth the U.S. saw from 2010 to early 2020. To see that growth again, it will take native-born Americans and immigrants working together.
The economic case for immigration is clear. Immigrants punch above their weight in the workforce and start new businesses at a higher rate than native-born Americans.
Seventeen percent of the U.S. workforce is made up of immigrants. Whether they are undocumented farm workers or highly educated doctors, immigrants are disproportionately represented in the very workers most essential in the U.S. right now.
Thirty percent of physicians in the U.S. are foreign born and more than 15 percent of registered nurses are also immigrants. Additionally, of the immigrant health care workforce 27,000 are Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.
The current pandemic has also spotlighted workers we do not think about enough: grocery store stockers and clerks, delivery drivers, truck drivers, agricultural workers, meat plant workers, and other personnel providing essential services. In these professions, too, immigrants tend to be overrepresented— nearly 17 percent of grocery store workers, 18 percent of food delivery drivers, and 19 percent of truck drivers are foreign born.
Additionally, nearly a third of meat processing plant workers are foreign born, and many of the men and women working in these plants are refugees. These are the men and women paying a price to feed America.
More than 70 percent of farm workers are undocumented. The fruits and vegetables keeping us nourished during the pandemic are picked almost entirely by immigrants who are in the country without legal authorization. But now, they carry letters from the Department of Homeland Security certifying them as essential workers. Ironically, these letters protecting their ability to work are from the very agency that seeks to find and deport them every day. This also speaks to the broader need for reform of our immigration system.
With large parts of the U.S. on pause, these immigrant workers continue to power the parts of the economy that are still direly needed. And when the economic recovery begins, immigration can help accelerate this nation’s recovery.
Given these facts, it is hard to understand why the current Administration temporarily suspended some immigration through an executive order.
It is also difficult to understand why four U.S. Senators would call for additional immigration suspensions.
There is no denying the economy is devastated, unemployment claims are continuing to soar, and small businesses are closing. Immigration skeptics are asking why we should continue to import immigrant labor when so many Americans are out of work.
Suspending immigration will not solve our current economic problems. It is very likely to hinder our economic recovery.
The economic facts of immigration are not disputed. Immigrants and the native-born do not compete with each other for jobs. In fact, native-born workers often benefit from immigration, moving up the career ladder.
Immigrants are entrepreneurial, starting new businesses at a higher rate than native-born Americans. In fact, companies such as Zoom and Google were founded by immigrant entrepreneurs and are some of the many tools that have made the stay-at-home orders easier on all of us by connecting us to family, friends, and colleagues. Instacart and Postmates, which deliver necessities when we cannot leave our homes, were also founded by immigrants.
Small and large businesses that immigrants start are a major driver of job creation in the U.S.—a crucial element for the nation’s post-pandemic economic recovery.
Temporarily suspending admission of immigrants will deprive us of the unique skills and contributions they can make to America’s recovery. We should not allow a temporary change like this to become permanent policy. It should guide future immigration policy reform.
We need immigrants to continue working in our hospitals. We need immigrants to continue stocking our grocery shelves. We need immigrants to process the bacon we will eat at our first brunch out with friends.
We’ll need these immigrants after the pandemic, too. And we’ll need immigrant entrepreneurship even more to rebuild our main street businesses, revitalize our neighborhoods, and create jobs.
Suspending immigration is a policy based on fear. But what will help us through this pandemic and recovery is working with each other, not against each other. We must fix our broken immigration system and push for comprehensive immigration reform. America is stronger when native-born citizens and immigrants work together.
Laura Collins serves as Director, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. Collins previously served as Director of Immigration Policy at the American Action Forum. She has experience in politics, working as a Senior Research Analyst at the Republican National Committee for the 2012 election cycle and in the Texas House of Representatives for the 82nd Legislature. A former practicing attorney, Collins earned a JD from The University of Texas School of Law and a BBA from the University of Oklahoma.
This article was written as part of the Addressing Global Crisis Project (AGC), which is run by the University of Central Florida’s Office of Global Perspectives & International Initiatives (GPII). AGC examines how governments, individually and collectively, deal with pandemics, natural disasters, ecological challenges, and climate change. AGC is organized around five primary pillars: (1) delivery of services and infrastructure; (2) water-energy-food security; (2) governance and politics; (4) economic development; and, (5) national security. Through its global network, AGC facilitates expert discussion and features articles, publications and online content.