A 2011 study by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, suggests that immigration reform may be a powerful force to lift the U.S. economy.
The study refuted the idea that new immigrants take jobs from American workers and contribute to the country’s economic problems. Instead, immigration can reinvigorate a sluggish economy and new immigrants can complement the skills of American workers.
During the 2011 legislative session, bills that made it easier for highly educated foreigners to work here advanced in both the U.S. House and Senate. President Obama also called for changing policy to allow greater numbers of talented immigrants to work in the country.
Leniency toward highly skilled foreigners is one part of the immigration reform puzzle that has had supporters from both the Republican and Democratic parties.
According to the study’s author, Madeline Zavodny, researchers used U.S. Census Bureau data to answer a basic question: “In states with more immigrants, are U.S. natives more or less likely to have a job?”
The study arrived at four main findings:
Immigrants with advanced degrees boost employment for U.S. natives. The research concluded that the most dramatic effect occurred when the immigrants had advanced degrees from U.S. universities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields.
Temporary foreign workers, both skilled and unskilled, boost U.S. employment. States that took advantage of the H-1B visa program for skilled workers and H-2B workers for less-skilled non-agricultural jobs had higher employment rates among native workers.
The study found no evidence that, overall, foreign-born workers hurt U.S. employment. The research debunks the idea that immigration leads to fewer jobs for U.S. natives.
Highly educated immigrants pay far more in taxes than they receive in benefits. According to the study, in 2009, the average the average foreign-born adult with an advanced degree paid over $22,500 in federal, state and payroll taxes. Yet, their families received benefits that were only one-tenth that size through government programs such as welfare, unemployment benefits and Medicaid.
The high tax payments of highly-skilled immigrants helps to offset the costs of immigrants at the bottom end of the wage and education scale who make draw more from public assistance and government benefits. But in general, contrary to politically skewed mythology, all immigrants pay more in taxes than they take away in public benefits.
Based on the findings, Zavodny offers these recommendations for policymakers looking for ways to create jobs:
Give priority to immigrants with advanced degrees from U.S. university, especially those who work in the STEM fields. Increase the number of green cards for highly educated workers. Make more temporary visas available for skilled and less-skilled workers. Zavodny thinks both the H-1B and H-2B programs are “severely limited under current law.”
The statistical analysis shows that adding 100 H-1B workers will lead to an additional 183 jobs for American workers.
Adding 100 H-2B workers results in 464 more jobs for American workers.
The researchers suggest that the country can’t afford to let talented foreigners use their skills elsewhere. Not only does the U.S. economy lose a chance to improve itself, but the loss is compounded when highly-skilled immigrants leave here because they “fuel innovation and economic growth in countries that compete with the American economy.”
The study notes that only 7% of green cards currently go to workers on the basis of their employment. The researchers suggest increasing the number of immigrants with advanced degrees in the nation’s workforce by raising the numbers of green cards available in specific employment categories.
In other words, the United States should target immigrants it wants based on their fields of expertise.
Zavodny, a professor of economics at Agnes Scott College, thinks policymakers are missing a chance to accelerate economic recovery when they overlook immigration reform as an option.