Immigrants take our jobs. They don’t pay taxes. They’re a drain on the economy. They make America less … American.
You’ve probably heard all of these arguments, especially with the country recovering from a financial disaster. Indeed, they’ve been heard for a century or two, as successive waves of immigrants to this nation of immigrants have first been vilified, then grudgingly tolerated, and ultimately venerated for their contributions.
This time, too, there is ample evidence that immigrants are creating businesses and revitalizing the U.S. workforce. From 2006 to 2012, more than two-fifths of the start-up tech companies in Silicon Valley had at least one foreign-born founder, according to the Kauffman Foundation. A report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, which advocates for immigrants in the U.S. workforce, found that they accounted for 28 percent of all new small businesses in 2011.
Immigrants also hold a third of the internationally valid patents issued to U.S. residents, according to University of California (Davis) economist Giovanni Peri. In a 2012 article published by the Cato Institute, the libertarian (and pro-immigration) think tank, Peri concluded that immigrants boost economic productivity and don’t have a notable impact—either positive or negative—on net job growth for U.S.-born workers. One reason: Immigrants and native-born workers gravitate toward different jobs.
Immigration isn’t without its negative effects, especially on Americans who lack a high school diploma, according to George Borjas, a professor of economics and social policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. In a 2013 report published by the immigration-restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, Borjas calculated that immigrants might have depressed the wages of native-born high school dropouts by 6 percent between 1990 and 2010, mainly due to foreigners who’d arrived illegally.
But immigration, on the whole, bolsters the workforce and adds to the nation’s overall economic activity. Look at the impact on cities that attract the most foreign-born residents. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston are all major immigrant destinations and also economic powerhouses, accounting for roughly one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product. In New York, immigrants made up 44 percent of the city's workforce in 2011; in and around Los Angeles, they accounted for a third of the economic output in 2007.
Immigrants tend to contribute more to the economy once they’ve learned English and become citizens. A few cities—notably, New York—have a long history of ushering immigrants into the mainstream society and economy. Other parts of the country have less experience with newcomers but are learning to adapt.
Take Nashville, for instance. As recently as 2009, immigrants living in the Tennessee capital had reason to worry. A conservative city council member proposed amending the municipality’s charter to require that all government business be conducted in English, allegedly to save money. This raised hackles. “Would the health department be allowed to speak Arabic to a patient?” or so The Tennessean, Nashville's leading newspaper, wondered. “Could a city-contracted counselor offer services in Spanish?”
The voters apparently wondered, too, for they soundly defeated the English-only amendment, which had earned the enmity of businesses, religious organizations, and advocacy groups. “A significant moment in the city’s history when it comes to immigration,” recalls Nashville’s mayor, Karl Dean, a Democrat who had recently taken office. “Since that moment, the city really hasn’t looked back.”
The foreign-born population in the Nashville metropolitan area has more than doubled since 2000; immigrants accounted for three-fifths of the city’s population growth between 2000 and 2012, and now constitute an eighth of all Nashville residents. When President Obama delivered a speech on immigration last December, he did it in Nashville. The city famed as the nation’s country music capital now boasts the largest U.S. enclave of Kurds, along with increasing numbers of immigrants from Myanmar and Somalia.
They’ve been drawn to Nashville’s booming economy, which has ranked among the fastest-growing in the nation in recent years. But they’re not only benefiting from the local prosperity—they’re contributing to it. Immigrants are twice as likely as native-born Nashville residents to start their own small businesses, according to data compiled by the Partnership for a New American Economy. They also play an outsized role in important local industries, including construction, health care, and hotels.
Nashville has welcomed these immigrants with open arms, in ways that other municipalities around the country are trying to emulate. In the forefront is a nonprofit organization called Welcoming Tennessee, started in 2005 to highlight immigrants’ contributions and potential role in Nashville’s future. It put up billboards around Nashville—“Welcome the immigrant you once were,” and the like—in hopes of defanging the political debate. The current race to elect a new mayor next month has drawn questions at campaign forums indicative of the new political tone, about how candidates would handle a diverse school system and assure that city services are available to all immigrants, legal or otherwise.
The “welcoming” movement that started in Tennessee has evolved into “Welcoming America,” a national network of organizations that preach the economic upside of immigration and help people adjust to life in the United States. Since 2009, 57 cities and counties, from San Francisco and Philadelphia to Dodge City, Kansas, have taken “welcoming” pledges, meaning that the local governments committed themselves to a plan to help immigrants assimilate.
The private sector, too, has shown an interest in bringing immigrants into the mainstream of American life. Citigroup is promoting citizenship efforts in Maryland, while another big bank, BB&T, has been holding educational forums across the Southeast to explain a federal program that issues work permits to young undocumented immigrants. Retailers such as American Apparel go out of their way to help foreign-born employees learn English and apply for citizenship. Beyond motives of altruism lay considerations of the bottom line. Foreign-born residents now make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, a not-to-be-ignored share of the consumer market. The next generation is more lucrative still: One in four American residents younger than 18 has an immigrant parent.
Local governments, mindful of their pressing economic needs, have taken the lead. Many cities have created offices devoted to serving “new Americans” locally. Dayton, Ohio, has intensified its efforts to redevelop a neighborhood with a growing Turkish community. Nashville runs a program called MyCity Academy, which teaches leaders from immigrant communities about local government.
Not every community that dubs itself a “welcoming city” will be able to replicate Nashville’s success. But Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, suggests some guidelines. Teaching immigrants how to speak English is “sort of foundational,” she says, “but it's helpful if the conversation doesn't stop there,” by also including how immigrants can thrive economically and gain access to health care. Muñoz endorses programs to connect ethnic leaders with local movers and shakers, to show the public that helping immigrants assimilate is “about all of us, as opposed to an ‘us and them’ kind of thing.”
The biggest obstacle to welcoming immigrants may be the usual one: a lack of resources. “Every area, you could probably be putting money into,” says Nashville Mayor Dean. Even so, he’s pleased that another potential obstacle—community opposition—has faded. “I'm sure there’s people who are concerned,” he says, “but they’re quiet about it.”
He adds, with more than a trace of civic pride: “I call it the happy moment here, how well the city has adjusted to being more diverse… It’s a good story, and you’ve got to be encouraged by it.”