Amid Immigration Debate, a Case for the Economic Benefits Emerges

U.S. Border Patrol agents process immigrants from Central America while taking them into custody on Aug. 17, 2016 near Roma, Texas.

By GERALD F. SEIB – – – – – –

The conversation about immigration in recent weeks has been loud and long, and dominated by the debate over whether Donald Trump was or wasn’t “softening” his position on illegal immigration.

That particular question appeared to be settled in Arizona, when Mr. Trump gave a much-anticipated speech that reaffirmed his tough immigration stands. He explicitly argued that illegal immigration is a financial drain on the country. Illegal immigration, he argued, “costs our country more than 113 billion dollars a year. For the money we are going to spend on illegal immigration over the next ten years, we could provide one million at-risk students with a school voucher.”

The flip side of that argument was rolled out in recent weeks, to much less fanfare. A group called the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan alliance of mayors and business leaders, issued a series of 51 economic research reports showing the economic gains immigrants produce in each state as well as the District of Columbia.

That trove of research material serves as a reminder that many workers’ fears that immigration suppresses wages and hurts their job prospects—arguments Mr. Trump stressed in his immigration speech—are paralleled by arguments that legal immigrants provide a net boost to the overall economy, filling holes in the workforce and, more importantly, playing an outsize role in the ranks of job-producing business entrepreneurs.

The partnership’s research materials say, for example, that more than 40% of Fortune 500 firms have at least one founder who was either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant.

That is an argument the New American Economy partnership has been pushing for several years. (Its co-chairs include former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corp., which publishes The Wall Street Journal). The partnership says its members are “united in making the economic case for streamlining, modernizing, and rationalizing our immigration system.”

The group’s new state-by-state research carries a strong business-community imprint. Its sponsors include Intel, Google, Microsoft and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

It also has potential political as well as economic overtones. That’s because the reports can be used by those who want to identify economic advantages of immigration in key battleground states, where the immigration debate may prove crucial. The report on the swing state of Colorado, for example, says that immigrant-owned firms in the state generated $566.4 million in business income in 2014, that 32,115 immigrants in Colorado are self-employed, and that 83,794 people in Colorado are employed at firms owned by immigrants.

The partnership calls for secure borders and moves to end illegal immigration, while arguing for greater opportunities for immigrants and foreign students to enter the work force legally as a way to strengthen the economy. But it also calls for a path to legal status for undocumented aliens already here.

Such ideas are common in the business world–and used to be common in Republican thinking on immigration. Mr. Trump, of course, has moved the party in a different direction. In his speech this week, he called for new efforts to deport illegal aliens but also raised questions about the level of legal immigration, arguing there should be “new immigration controls” and that the aim should be “to keep immigration levels, measured by population share, within historical norms.”

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