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Do immigrants help the economy?

By Spencer S. Hsu

As the national debate over immigration splinters into state-by-state skirmishes over Arizona-style crackdowns on illegal immigrants, a new book from the Brookings Institution makes the case that enforcement efforts overlook a fundamental fact: immigration fuels the U.S. economy.

At a time of 9.5 percent unemployment, the argument may be surprising. But “Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy” hammers home an argument that gifted immigrants have powered American advances in energy, information technology, sports, arts and culture.

“The U.S. has benefited greatly over the years from the ’brain gain’ of immigration,” said author Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “To stay competitive, we must make way for the next Sergey Brin, Andrew Grove, and Albert Einstein,” West argues, citing the co-founder of Google, chief of computer chip-maker Intel Corp. and history’s most famous physicist.

West joins a growing chorus of elite opinion makers and policy analysts who are grounding calls for immigration reform on U.S. global competitiveness — and not just more secure borders and workplaces or legalization for long-settled, contributing illegal immigrants.

In the last 18 months, another Brookings panel teamed up with the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University to make similar points in a study “Breaking the Immigration Stalemate”. So did the Migration Policy Institute, led by Demetrios G. Papademetriou and Doris Meissner, in “Harnessing the Advantages of Immigration for a 21st-Century Economy.”

Because the politics of immigration are so complex, MPI and others suggest that Congress should create a standing commission to set inflow levels at a fine-grained city, state and national level based on labor market and other business-cycle needs.

“Immigration policy is critical to America’s economic, diplomatic and security standing in the world,” said Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who directed a bipartisan 2009 task force report co-chaired by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and and former White House chief of staff Thomas “Mack” McLarty. “The U.S. has long benefited from its ability to attract bright and hard-working immigrants, and there would be huge costs to this country if we lose that edge.”

West’s main point is that countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore are more strategic in linking immigration to long-term economic development. Canada reserves 55 percent of visas for employment-related purposes, while the United States sets aside only 15 percent — and just 6.5 percent for high skilled workers, as opposed to seasonal agricultural workers.

More controversially, West argues that U.S. immigration policy went “seriously off course” after Congress in 1965 made family unification a primary goal — accounting for 64 percent of visas today.

“I am a big proponent of family reunification,” West said. However, he argued, visas should be limited to immediate relatives instead of aunts, uncles and cousins of immigrants. Limiting so-called “chain migration” would free up hundreds of thousands of visas with particular skills, he said.

Both recent Brookings’ products have pushed similar themes. However, a Senate Democratic “blueprint” for immigration legislation this year called family reunification “a cornerstone value of our immigration system.” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said reducing reducing illegal immigration would create more room for both family and work-based flows.

Such differences could drive a wedge among advocates of comprehensive legislation (which include West), who already are debating whether to pursue piecemeal efforts that would provide relief for well-established children of illegal immigrants and agricultural workers, leaving the harder question of legalization for later.

On the other hand, critics of immigration dispute the idea that not enough native-born Americans want to study science and engineering, arguing that government policy has flooded the market with newcomers who have held back wages.

Nevertheless, West marshals an impressive array of now-familiar facts. Immigrants raised U.S. gross domestic product by $37 billion in 2007, and were twice as likely as native-born Americans to start a new business between 1996 and 2008, employing 450,000 workers in 2005. Nearly one-fourth of patents filed from the United States in 2006 were based on work of U.S. immigrants, and 53 percent of patent-holders got their top degree from a U.S. university.

“People believe a lot of things about immigration that simply aren’t true, and those beliefs make it difficult for politicians to actually make change,” West said. “I think if people understood those facts, they would be more reasonable in working toward a response to the problem.”

West presents findings from his book from noon to 2 p.m. today with a panel discussion involving former Miami mayor Manny Diaz and Juan Osuna, deputy assistant attorney general, head of immigration litigation at the Department of Justice.

By Spencer S. Hsu  |  July 8, 2010; 12:07 PM ET
 | Tags: immigration debate; immigrants and the economy; immigrants and jobs  
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Next: Immigration's racial complexity


Yet another Post column that fails to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration. This really is getting old. Yes, this is a nation built by immigrants. They landed on Ellis Island, they did not swim past it in the dark of night.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | July 8, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse


This nebulous referral to "immigrants" (when everyone knows it is ILLEGAL immigration which is specifically being debated) is getting very old and annoying. It is also plainly dishonest and offensive in that it tries to smuggle in the notion that those who have worked hard to enter the country legally and become American citizens and those who did not are one and the same.

Whoever said that immigrants DONT help the economy? "Immigrants" are not the hot topic of discussion and debate right now in America. Illegal immigrants are, and there is a very BIG difference (especially in terms of their economic impact) between those two groups. I personally know families of Mexican and Asian immigrants who would take exception to your lumping them in carelessly with those who did not go through the years of savings, hardship, and paperwork they did to call themselves taxpaying American citizens.

It is very telling that those who are in favor of illegal immigration are always so careful to avoid any mention of the specific subject. But repeatedly conflating the causes of those who entered the country legally to become citizens and those who are in the country illegally- all in an effort to buttress your own irrational position- is frankly an offensive misrepresentation.

Posted by: JN707 | July 8, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

The average annual revenue per business in the U.S
is $455000.
There are about 2.8 million hispanic owned businesses in the U.S.
The average amount of yearly revenue for hispanic
owned businesses is only $155000. About one third
of the average. If all businesses in the U.S were
like the hispanic owned businesses the U.S would
be as poor as Mexico.
There are 30 million business in the U.S.
With a population of 300 million that is a ratio
of 1:10.
With 2.8 million hispanic owned business the
same ratio would mean there are 28 million
hispanics in the country. There are more
than 28 million hispanics in the U.S.
Which means their rate of creating new
business is less than average.
As far as technology startups in silicon
valley Chinese immigrants have started about
36 companies and about 22 companies were
started by immigrants from india.
The combined revenue of all these startups
is only a small fraction of the revenue
produced by Apple computer.

No technology companies have been started by illegal immigrants from Mexico.

Posted by: p_komisky | July 8, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

If you cherry pick all of the smartest people
in the world and bring them to just a few countries
it is fairly certain that those countries will
become richer and the rest of the world will get poorer. That will just make the problem of having extremely wealthy and extremely poor countries
even worse. That leaves people in poor countries
without any option but to illegal immigrate to
a rich country.

Posted by: p_komisky | July 8, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

This article hardly deserves the dignity of a response, so I'll just agree with those posts above that point out that the issue under discussion is ILLEGAL immigrants. A pox on you for continuing to distort the issue.

Posted by: jp31901cg | July 8, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

The fact that the US Border Patrol would have had more momentum, to patrol between the tracks constructed by road crews between the steel and concrete fence and the 15 foot chain link fence in the interior. Arizona as with California, Texas and New Mexico are the first line of defense against the 20 to 30 million foreign nationals residing illegal in this country. It looks like with each administration, Barack Obama, his Liberal progressive Czars have no intentions of enforcing the 1986 Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy or John McCain immigration law or even revising its contents. They want to reinvent it, so the illegal alien criminals who broke our law get--AMNESTY. If the Tea Party or millions of patriotic Americans have anything to do with this insane open door syndrome, it will never happen. Specifically now have alerted to the US population that supporting the unskilled, poor and wanton are costing taxpayers 113 billion dollars annually, according to FAIR. Another gigantic minus of $60 billion dollars earned by illegal aliens in the U.S. each year and being money-transferred out the country. This being Mexico's largest revenue streams (after exports and oil sales) consists of money sent home by legal immigrants and illegal aliens working in America.

Arch Enemy of immigration "Rule of Law" is Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), who because of the dense population of illegal alien workers in Nevada, is now playing politics with American sovereignty. Nevadans must be on their guard of illegal voting for Reid in the coming elections as he is Pro-Amnesty. As for California the estimated number of foreign nationals in the state is perhaps 10 million overall, so voting days must be carefully watched as should absentee ballots for voting violations. Democrat Barb Boxer is another Pro-amnesty enthusiast and must be wrestled from her political nest egg. Reid also must go as every other incumbent who is kowtowing to illegal alien constituency as with California. We as citizens-legal residents must make sure these people are—NOT--reelected. Closely scrutinize any new politician relating to their platform on illegal immigration. The power of our vote can refute them access to Washington or State government. Demand they follow the "Rule of Law" We as American voters must bombard all federal and state lawmakers at 202-224-3121 NumbersUSA has an immigration grading system showing who should not be reelected in primaries or November. Facts, figures and other statistics at Immigration Counters.

Posted by: infinity555 | July 8, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Unknown to the American people under the requirement of 2006 Secure fence Act, within days of being ratified, Sen. Kay Baily Hutchinson, sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, (R-TX) attacked a major provisions of a second independent fence. It was then gutted under a very quiet act entitled the 2006 The omnibus Consolidated Appropriations bill. As a blogger I had to dig deep to find any mention of cutting funding, to this originally mandated law to build two separate parallel fences stretching along the Mexican-US border. So now four years later we have this violent nightmare existing on the border, that now has come back to haunt the cynics of the--REAL--border fencing. Indirectly these Senators who gutted the auxiliary fence are entirely to blame for the deaths on the border of the Cattleman, law Enforcement, US Border Patrol officers and even illegal aliens. It seems very unlikely that the drug cartels and Mexican military encroachment across the border would have been extremely difficult of passing through two fences.

Posted by: infinity555 | July 8, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Legal immigrants help all Americans, while illegal immigrants only help businesses that want to use cheap labor, which doesn't give much savings to the consumer, since labor costs are usually the smallest piece of the cost pie for products.

As for the "brain gain", illegals, especially those from just across our southern border, are hardly beneficial. 30% of Latinos don't finish high school, and only 12% finish college. This includes 2nd and 3rd generation (and beyond) immigrants who grew up attending US schools. Immigrant-heavy California schools, once the cream of the US crop, are near the bottom on college entrance exams.

Posted by: saqmandu | July 8, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

The moneyed elite has their spin machine working overtime.

They are scared stiff that our immigration laws will be enforced and guest worker or another kind of amnesty won't pass.

They want that cheap illegal labor to keep on coming.

How else are they going to keep the average American people down!

We should be admitting the most educated, talented legal immigrants, and dump the rule of family reunification. That is what all other first world countries do.

Most economists agree that low skilled labor takes more out of the economy than it puts in.

Illegal aliens are mostly unskilled labor that is draining our taxpayer dollars.

A new study shows illegal aliens cost each American family 1,100 per year.

No more bailouts for the rich with amnesty guest worker programs!

Fully enforce our immigration laws!

Posted by: Bettybb | July 8, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

It would be nice if the writer of this piece referred to studies that do not support his point of view. On this point, I urge everyone to take a look at the scholarship of Professor Grogger of the University of Chicago. To look at the whole picture of the impact of immigration one must also take a look at things this author does not want to consider. For example, Robert Rector has done some very interesting work on the cost the rest of the country pays when unskilled workers whether legal or illegal are in this country. The simple truth is that some immigrants are a gain to this country and other immigrants are not. Instead of basing our immigration quotas on family reunification, the smart move would be to have a skills based system. Currently, only somewhere around 15% of our legal immigrants enter under this designation. Finally, the argument that we need unskilled workers is that Americans will not do jobs. On this point, I want to remind everyone that in the EU workers in these categories make 2 and 1/2 and 3 times what they make in America. Simply put, this piece is just another piece of propaganda and not very good propaganda.

Posted by: jeffreed | July 8, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

No one is against immigration. I am for it, especially for those with education. However, too many jounalists and politicans fail to compare immigration versus illegal immigration. It's has been written many times that most illegals are uneducated. I use to agree with the family connection. But since the amnesty in 1986, illegal immigrants have got the advantage of family visas. Those who waited to be allowed legally in the country are at a distinct dis-advantage. The fact that quotas based on 7 regions of the world are contined in immigration ploicy/laws is good for America. Unfortunatley thse laws/policies have not been enforced/followed. We have now told the world "Latinos are at the top of immigration becasue many are already here(many illegally). Tens of millions of citizens from Asia, Africa adn Europe would love to come to America. We are teling them they must do it legally while turning a blind eye to those that cross the southern border illegall.

Posted by: baz987 | July 8, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Do immigrants help the economy?
Why don't you ask the more relevant question, "do illegal immigrants help the economy?"

Posted by: WildBill1 | July 8, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

Good grief ...Aztlan builders want to make it Mexico here.....vomit.

Obama and the shrinking border of North Mexico is just not ready for unemployed Veterans who know how to organize and take the fight right to the spot they want to own and defend.

This has prompted an odd will to give Arizona a Beach and end the human smuggling trade route in fron Baja Sur for California.

The illegals win citizenship right were they are in a shrinking North Mexico border, and Americans are happy with new Countys added o their land mass... everybody wins.
Canada is stoked and moving to plant their Canadian Flags for a warm beach.

The returning Vets are all used to defending a border, and at least this new one they really really do want.

Obama in control is the laugh of the day.
The USA need a leader out in front of them, and out in front of the them are the guys and families heading down to plant USA flags and declare the warzone.
One of them will be the USA POTUS...mark my words.

Apparently, the USA battle will be waged on the New American turf as Far South as Sinaloa, but Canada wants a warm nice beach front down to Guatamala, who can have the rest if they can take it.

The open borders with Mexico in absolute Chaos is finding millions of unemployed Americans heading down without papers to lay claim with USA flags to BAJA Sur for a California annex.

Sonora attached to Arizona, granting them a beach and a new County.

Chihuahua attached to New Mexico as a new County.

Coahuila and Tamaulipas annex to texas as 2 Countys. Rumor has it that Nuevo Leon was to join the USA also.

The returning Veterans without job hope are the ones people flock around as their law enforcement in their little USA flag communities abandonded by Aztlan builders down there.

The USA people picks it's battles and where the warzone will be, apparently.

Posted by: dottydo | July 8, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

Legal immigration is fine. Only problem here is that we have 16-17 million Americans out of work right now, and perhaps we should cut back some on legal immigration until we get the Americans working first. Don't mix legal immigration with ILLEGAL immigration.

Illegal aliens are destroying this Country, and one would have to be almost blind not to see this. How much longer do we have to support these illegal aliens? How much longer do we have to school their illegal alien children? How much longer are we going to let them have our jobs? How much longer are we going to put up with all the crime, stolen identities, forged documents, fake green cards? How much longer are we going to allow these illegal aliens to send money out of this Country and bring our Country down? Oh, amnesty will correct all this. WRONG! Nothing will change except we wouldn't be able to call them illegal aliens any more. Let's get rid of these illegal aliens! Let's get them back to their own Country where they belong!

As for costs of the illegal aliens...,_Study_Finds.html

Let us keep in mind, this does not count the money that is sent out of this Country.


Posted by: scuncic | July 8, 2010 11:18 PM | Report abuse

Immigration is good for many reasons: cheap labor and plenty of consumers.
It doesn't take a genius to understand that those coming here are looking for something better than in their own country. By COMPARISON.
Those living/working here for 20 years or more have evolved, improved, learned their rights, have higher expectations, saw what's going on and maybe are not buying into the myth quite as much.
Since globalization and the fall of the communist block, companies have realized they can use cheap educated labor without investing anything. How many companies do training anymore?
As a consequence, wages go down or stay flat, families can afford less and less to invest in education while corporations keep making profits for themselves and for the OTHER countries, while English is becoming a second language and the American middle class is shrinking.
With greed out of control, the practices of the last 15 years are turning this country into a 21st century slavery system.

Posted by: crm777 | July 9, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Do immigrants help the economy?
This article is stupid because it is only a shill excuse to spread untruth and is in fact all propaganda attempting to sway public opinion. Hopefully these untrue recitements will convince someone the millions of illegal alien "squatters" we, the citizens, are supporting here is somehow beneficial and desireable. It is not! It is a net drain on the taxpaying productive citizen. The citizens should be able to sue the Federal Government for not defending them, and permitting the invasion of illegal aliens into our country to overburdun our schools, police, hospitals, and public facilities and services. We conveniently cannot sue for how we are being taken advantage of and damaged by illegal aliens, who almost "take" and steal and commit mayhem at will!
Throw out all the incumbent politicians who are for illegal immigration! Stop reading newspapers and articles that refer to illegal alien squatters as Immigrants. They are not immigrants! They are a horrible problem our Federal government has created! Geow up people! Defend yourself! Get rid of the racist Obama Administration and all the political correct idiots in office. They are stealing from you and destroying our country! Don't want to believe it do you?
That is exactly what Obama and his theives are counting on...

Posted by: USDefender | July 9, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I have no problem with immagrants, it's those who come here running drugs,gun,and from the law in there own country. We don't want anymore period. We need to close both borders not just the southern, but all of them. We are going to take our country back, so people you better get ready. God Bless America!

Posted by: kmsmrk | July 9, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Who is Spencer Hsu and what are his credentials for writing this type of article? Frankly I would have expected better from someone at the WP.

Posted by: dagdason | July 12, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

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