Immigration has become a pivotal theme in this election season. It's one that touches on all sorts of complex and controversial issues. But for many Americans, feelings about immigrants boil down to the bottom line.
Many immigrants rights activists point to all the economic contributions made by those who come to this country from elsewhere. Opponents say immigrants rob citizens of jobs and drain our resources.
As part of the NPR series 'A Nation Engaged', KPCC examines the fiscal impact of immigration and how that shapes our view on the topic.
- Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota
- Kevin Johnson, dean of the School of Law at UC Davis.
How important do you think immigrant labor is here in California? What would we do without it?
Kevin Johnson: It's incredibly important to the California economy. Agriculture, the service industries, and the construction industry as well. And if we did not have immigrant labor to keep wages flat and relatively low, we could see increased costs for things like food, produce, restaurants, hotels and childcare. It would have reverberations throughout our entire economy.
Over 10 percent of our workforce in California is estimated to be undocumented. Economists will tell you in their studies that immigrants overall benefit the US economy. They contribute more to its growth than they take away in terms of costs, but when you hear many people talking about the cost of immigration, they often don't include the dollars and cents benefits of immigration.
Yesterday, Donald Trump made a speech in Phoenix where he talked a fair bit about immigration. He said this:
Kevin Johnson, several numbers were thrown out there, including that $113 billion dollar figure that came from a report done by Federation for American Immigration Reform. What should people and voters bear in mind when they hear Trump use a number like that?
What's not included in his citation of costs is the benefits to the American economy in contributions of immigrant labor: how much more is produced, how much more is spent by immigrants paid in the United States.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform is an organization worth noting. They are committed to closing the borders, a moratorium on immigration, they have expressed concern about non-white non-English speakers immigrating to the United States, and they are ardently committed to restrictionist immigration laws, so I'm not sure that's an academic study of any kind; it's more of an advocacy document by an advocacy organization seeking to change the tenor of the debate on immigration.
Let's turn now to what life is like from the immigrant's point of view. Sometimes building a new life in the US can be incredibly challenging. Last fall, as Syrian refugees began trickling into the US, 31 governors stated bluntly these immigrants weren't welcome in their states. Since then, more than 1000 new Syrian refugees have arrived in California.
Erika Lee, America used to be seen as this land that was so welcoming to people. Where do you think we stand now in 2016 in the rest of the world's eyes concerning who we let in and who we don't.
I would say that that reputation of America being a nation of immigrants is at risk. On the other hand, we do have to remember that our history is one of welcoming immigrants, but excluding certain groups for generations. We can point to the series of Asian exclusion laws that banned almost every Asian immigrant group up through World War Two. When European Jews needed us the most, we closed our doors. This, frankly, very small number of Syrian refugees that President Obama committed to resettling — 10,000 — is just a drop in the bucket. Canda has already resettled 25,000, and we know Germany has already resettled one million.
If we want to really live up to our ideals of welcoming strangers to the United States, it's time that we really act on those sentiments.
Press the blue play button above to hear more about the fiscal impact of immigration on America.
(Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
Series: A Nation Engaged
NPR and KPCC's coverage of critical issues facing the nation before November's presidential election. The stories seek to build a nationwide conversation around focusing on a specific question each time.