Recent debates over America’s immigration policy are exposing a deep rift in conservative politics. In the Utah Senate debate earlier this year, Mitt Romney referred to U.S. policies that separated immigrant parents from their children at the border as a “dark chapter” in American history. Others have urged President Donald Trump to uphold his campaign promises by taking stronger steps to restrict immigration.
Those who support restricting immigration claim that the U.S. economy is already at full employment, which means an influx of immigrants will only further strain public funds that are already stretched too thin.
While calls for restricting immigration are often made on economic grounds, there is little evidence that restricting immigration will improve America’s economic situation. If anything, restrictionism would hurt the economy.
Using phrases like “full employment” implies that the economy is a fixed pie. In reality, economies grow along with the population. More labor means more output. In turn, more immigrants mean more shoppers at local businesses, more jobs, and more prosperity for all Americans.
Still, anti-immigration advocates insist that immigrants take jobs away from native-born Americans. But research from immigration expert Dr. Giovanni Peri suggests that restricting the flow of immigrants actually slows job creation, leaving natives with fewer opportunities. On average, business owners employing immigrants have lower labor costs, which enables them to invest those savings in expanding their operations. As businesses grow, they hire more employees, leading to a net growth in jobs available.
There’s also powerful and growing evidence that immigrants start more businesses than natives. They’re twice as likely to do so, it turns out. So it’s not just that immigrants allow existing businesses to expand, they also give natives more jobs to choose from. Instead of taking employment options away from natives, immigrants are creating them.
Besides the jobs immigrants create, it’s unlikely that the U.S. economy is at full capacity. Here too, studies show that rather than straining labor markets by moving to areas with few available jobs, immigrants tend to enter areas that have existing labor market gaps. In fact, because of immigration restrictions, some jobs go unfilled for long periods of time.
Immigration expert Dr. Michael Clemens conducted one study that looked at the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA). The NCGA is a group of farmers who collectively apply for work visas to staff their farms. In 2011, the NCGA needed 6,500 workers, yet only around 260 natives applied — just 4 percent of the NCGA’s total needs. Dr. Clemens’ study concludes that “foreign agriculture workers fill jobs that native workers will not, and that by filling these jobs, foreign workers benefit North Carolina’s economy and create jobs for Americans.”
Critics of increased immigration can tout the costs of immigration, but they also can’t ignore its benefits. Immigrants are highly motivated contributors to the American economy, not deadweight living on public resources.
Immigration will be a defining element of President Trump’s legacy. Reducing immigration restrictions by removing quotas that keep highly-educated immigrants out of the United States and protecting the children of undocumented immigrants are two points where President Trump can ensure that his record on immigration is a positive one.
Josh T. Smith is a research manager at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, Jesse Baker is a CGO graduate research fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity.