Embrace the economic benefits of immigration

The American flag flies in front of the U.S. Capitol dome on September 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

Immigration has become such a divisive issue that many Minnesotans feel they are being pushed into one of two camps. They are either soft-hearts who empathize with downtrodden people seeking a better life in America or hard-heads who want to defend the nation’s economy and laws.

But this is a false dichotomy. “We don’t have to choose between what’s good for the economy and being humanitarian,” says Jane Graupman, executive director of the International Institute of Minnesota, an important player in refugee resettlement. “They help each other.” Minnesota — and the nation — needs leaders who can recognize that, cut through the ugliness and help us find common ground.


The humanitarian case for helping more refugees and immigrants is clear. The number of displaced people in the world has soared in recent years, from fewer than 50 million in 2012 to more than 100 million in 2022. One could argue that citizens of countries such as Syria and Venezuela should fix their own problems first. But considering that most are poverty-stricken or displaced villagers facing brutal, armed autocrats, that is neither likely nor compassionate.

The economic argument is equally clear. The financier and former “auto czar” Steven Rattner says that to simply maintain our economic and population growth of the past two decades, the United States would have to accept some 4 million legal immigrants a year, up from roughly 1 million in recent years.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that last year’s increase in immigration will add $7 trillion to the U.S. economy this year and $1 trillion to federal revenues. Why? Foreign-born Americans are more likely to hold jobs and more likely to start new businesses than native-born residents.

If you don’t find statistics persuasive, listen to two prominent Republican governors, Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Spencer Cox of Utah, who have become leading advocates for more immigration. “Rapidly declining birthrates and accelerating retirements across the United States mean that our states’ already-wide job gaps will grow to crisis proportions without more [immigrant] families — causing our growth engines to sputter,” they wrote recently in the Washington Post.

But doesn’t immigration depress wages? A series of studies by the National Bureau of Economic Research has found that immigration actually has a mild positive effect on overall wages. That’s because, on the whole, immigrants mostly don’t compete directly with native-born workers. Immigrants and refugees, on average, tend to be very high-skilled (think physicians and programmers) or very low-skilled (think landscapers and construction laborers), which means they “complement” the mid-skilled native-born workforce.

By filling what otherwise would be gaps in the workforce, immigrants allow companies to grow, raise productivity and stimulate economic growth. And don’t forget that immigrants and refugees start small businesses at extremely high rates, creating jobs for landlords, vendors and other local businesses.

None of this will persuade folks who are fundamentally offended by the idea that people are breaking the law and we can’t police our own borders. Fair enough — the current immigration system is full of flaws.

So here’s an idea. Remember Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who sent planeloads of immigrants to liberal northern cities such as Chicago and New York? What if, instead, the federal government stepped in to make it compassionate and productive? Query the governors and mayors with severe labor shortages — there are plenty — and then help them integrate immigrants and refugees while making it easier to obtain work permits and other legal documents.

Immigration policy has bedeviled the United States almost since its founding. But over the decades, Congress has repeatedly found solutions to these problems as they cropped up, and there is no reason why it can’t now.