This article was first published by American University in Cairo’s Cairo Review of Global Affairs. It was published as part of UCF’s partnership with AUC, thanks to the generous support of Jonathan and Nancy Wolf.
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.
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 populations of the very workers most essential in the United States. right now. Thirty percent of physicians in the United States are foreign born, and more than 15 percent of registered nurses are also immigrants. Additionally, of the immigrant health care workforce, twenty-seven thousand are Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or 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.
The fruits and vegetables keeping us nourished during the pandemic are picked almost entirely by immigrants who are in the country without legal authorization; more than 70 percent of farm workers are undocumented. 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 speaks to the broader need for reform of our immigration system. With large parts of the United States on pause, immigrant workers continue to power the parts of the economy that are still direly needed. And when 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 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 that 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, however. Instead, 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 by moving up the career ladder. Furthermore, 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 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 major drivers of job creation in the United States—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 this temporary change to become permanent policy. Instead, 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 in Director at the George W Bush Center at SMU.