President Donald Trump announced Wednesday in a joint statement with Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) that he would like to dramatically slash legal — not illegal — immigration. Speaking in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Trump endorsed the senators’ proposed Raise Act, promising it will raise wages for American-born workers.
The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act has two elements. The first proposal makes sense: Move our legal immigration system toward a merit-based system. High-skilled immigrants create jobs, drive innovation and fill critical gaps in the U.S. labor force.
But while moving to a merit-based immigration system, Cotton and Perdue also propose reducing the number of legal immigrants admitted into the United States every year by half — from about 1 million to about 500,000. They argue that having fewer immigrants will leave more jobs available for American workers.
But the economy simply doesn’t work that way.
Economists who study immigration overwhelmingly agree that immigration is an economic boon to our country. Indeed, nearly 1,500 Republican, Democratic and independent economists — including six Nobel laureates — recently released a letter stressing the “near universal agreement” among economists of all stripes on “the broad economic benefit that immigrants to this country bring.”
To that consensus, Cotton responds: “Only an intellectual could believe something so stupid.” He instead points to Canada and Australia as models for limited legal immigration. However, while it’s true that Canada and Australia admit far more high-skilled immigrants, they also admit more family-based immigrants. In fact, on a per capita basis, they admit 2.4 and 3.5 times as many immigrants, respectively, as the United States does.
Australia and Canada have opened their doors because immigrants bring much-needed new business. In the United States, an immigrant or a child of an immigrant founded more than 40 percent of our Fortune 500 companies. One in every 10 Americans who work at a private company in the United States works for an immigrant. Despite accounting for just 14 percent of the population, immigrants make up nearly 30 percent of all new U.S. entrepreneurs, and their businesses employ nearly 6 million workers across the United States.
Immigration also drives innovation. Half of all early-stage research in the United States is done in our universities, and immigrants were behind more than 75 percent of all patents at the top U.S. patent-producing universities several years ago.
Immigrants are also more likely to be of working age. Without immigration, the United States faces an aging workforce, with 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day and too few workers entering the job market to replace them. Immigration isn’t going to solve the aging crisis, but it certainly will help. Just half of native-born Americans are of prime working age (25 to 64 years old), but more than 72 percent of all immigrants fit into this category. In part because of this, immigrants are also huge net contributors to Social Security and Medicare.
Finally, immigration helps to fill skill gaps in our workforce, making American companies more competitive globally. Immigrants are far more likely than native-born Americans to lack a high school diploma, and they’re also more likely to have a PhD. In the health-care industry, immigrants are twice as likely to be physicians and surgeons. They’re also twice as likely to be home health aides — another field facing a shortage that will only increase as Americans live longer and require greater medical care.
Immigration is not a cure for all our economic ills, and Cotton and Perdue are correct that our legal immigration system absolutely needs to be updated to reflect our current economic needs. Done right, immigration policy can attract more talent, sustain broad economic growth and yield even greater benefits for American workers and businesses alike.
But drastic cuts to legal immigration levels would hurt economic growth and result in fewer jobs for Americans. Closing our doors to immigrants won’t reverse automation, globalization or the rise of technology. If anything, it would strip the United States of our greatest competitive advantage in the global economy: that we attract so many talented, innovative entrepreneurs and individuals from so many different places.
Jeremy Robbins is the executive director of New American Economy.