The President’s speech today from the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso, Texas, hit the right message: immigrants are vital to U.S. economic competitiveness and growth. As was reiterated today, the U.S. can no longer afford to idly sit by without passing legislation to create an immigration system that fosters entrepreneurship and addresses the plight of those in the U.S. without authorization. With flags fluttering in the background on a hot Texas day, he emphasized that “reform will make America more competitive in the global economy.”
The numbers are clear. Immigrants come to the U.S. to contribute to this country’s future and to create a better future for their families. It’s no surprise that people who give up everything to start a new future in the U.S. are also innovative businesses people. In fact, according to a 2008 study issued by the Small Business Administration, immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a business than non-immigrants. And overall, The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute reported in 2007 that Hispanic entrepreneurs have established an estimated 2 million businesses in the United States, generating $350 billion annually. Here in New York, immigrants accounted for $229 billion in economic output, or 22.4 percent of the state’s total GDP, according to a 2007 study by the Fiscal Policy Institute.
But immigrants are also the ones who will increasingly pay into social security as baby boomers retire. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis points out the shifting dynamics of our workforce in the new AQ: “The aging of the U.S. population and its birth rate make clear that America’s workforce can be replenished only by immigration.”
Anti-immigrant zealots like Tom Trancedo and Kris Kobach—who I saw debating our immigration policies last week—will claim that the long-term economic argument of welcoming immigrants does not take into account the reality of a 9 percent unemployment rate today. They say that immigrants are taking the jobs that U.S.-born workers need.
Well, that is simply not true. A 2006 paper ("Rethinking the Effects of Immigration on Wages") by Gianmarco I.P. Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri argues that “uneducated foreign-born do not fully and directly substitute for (compete with) uneducated natives, but partly complement their skills.” According to their estimates, the average wage of U.S.-born workers experiences a significant increase (rather than a decrease) as a consequence of immigration. Even George Borjas can only prove that between 1980 and 2000, workers lost, on average, about 3 percent of the real value of their wages due to immigration.
The President spoke today after touring the cargo facility at the Bridge of the Americas Port of Entry—the largest of four crossings that comprise the El Paso Port of Entry and the site of approximately 10 percent of crossings into the United States. The tour and speech together made the case that the administration had gone above and beyond what was demanded to secure the border first before tackling immigration reform. Obama highlighted that the 20,000 Border patrol agents today is more than double the number in place in 2004, and beyond “boots on the ground,” the fence is nearly complete (a comment not well received from today’s audience), unmanned aerial vehicles are in the skies, and 100 percent of southbound rail shipments are being screened. In clear campaign mode, he cautioned Republicans not to move the goal line of what is demanded in border security before engaging in serious immigration talks.
Today’s speech was a welcome call for Congress to get serious about immigration reform, especially resolving those issues such as the DREAM Act that both sides should be able to agree on. The challenge now is how much of his newfound post-bin Laden political capital he is willing to use on pushing forward immigration reform. It’s one thing to call for reform and to outline a four-point strategy for reform (securing the border, holding business accountable, moving those here without authorization to the back of the line, and reforming the system so it works for the future). But it’s another thing to focus his administration’s attention on working with Congress and a Republican-led House of Representatives to move reform forward.
If they now act, the President and pro-immigrant Members of Congress will fund increasing support among businesses, community groups and advocates overall. The President should also recognize that the Latino vote—decisive in electing members of his party like Senator Harry Reid (D-NV)—will not be won over by just a few policy speeches. These voters know when issues are rhetorically deemed important for campaign purposes, and they will now be looking to him to lead on this issue. If he does, El Paso may mark the beginning of a longstanding courtship.
*Jason Marczak is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is senior editor of Americas Quarterly, managing editor of AQ Online and director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.