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Report shows real impact of immigration

Once again we are indulging in our love/hate relationship with immigration and immigrants. And once again the focus is on illegal immigration, particularly those on our southern border.

We find the debate in Congress centering on budgeting funds for a wall across the Mexican border and increasing border patrol forces and more deportations. We have been there before. It seems so easy to rev up the fear and hate and forget our heritage of richness and renewal brought by our immigrants. These debates trend to the emotional rather than the factual.

I recently attended a briefing on a new report, “The Impact of Immigration on the California Economy” (www.labor.ca.gov/panel/impactimmcaecon.pdf), commissioned by the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency and the California Economic Strategy Panel. It examines the factual issues of California immigration. The facts lead to a clear policy path.

Facts: Of California’s 9.5 million immigrants, 6.6 percent are illegal. Most California immigrants come from Mexico and Asia. California absorbs the majority of U.S. immigrants. By 2030, it is projected that 24 percent of California’s population will be immigrants who have been here 10 years or more.

The study evaluated the effects of these immigrants on the state’s economy since 1990. During that time we have had two recessions and continued immigration. These events are not detectable on the state’s economy. In fact, the 2004 indicators are better then the 1990 indicators. There were improvements in unemployment, poverty, wage levels, and job growth. There is no detectable evidence that immigration has long-term negative effects on our economy.

It went on to measure the impact of second- and third-generation immigrants. Again there is no negative effect. Statistically the children and grandchildren of immigrants fit into the economy the same as native-born. And the “occupational profile of second-generation residents is similar to that of native-born residents.”

However, immigrants with lower education do create financial burden for their counties. Generally they require more social services and don’t generate enough taxes to offset the cost of education their children. Further, while their children are becoming working taxpayers, they often move away. This means that some other county receives the benefits, not the county that absorbed them into California.

And there is the question of immigrants taking low-skill jobs from native-born workers. A study by the National Academy of Sciences found that immigrants have “only a small adverse affect or little affect” on the wages of the native-born.

The bottom line is that immigrants and their families are a net positive for state and national economies but with an initial cost to local budgets.

But the economy, if it is to keep growing, needs workers and more educated workers. Interestingly, this needed workforce will come from the kids of immigrants because native-born families are having fewer children. But the need for an educated workforce is immediate. While we debate immigration barriers our economic needs and foreign competition continue to grow.

A recent Science magazine (December 16, 2005) illustrated these workforce issues facing California and the United States. It reported a call from the Administration’s National “Summit on Competitiveness” for “doubling over the next 10 years the number of undergraduates earning science and engineering degrees,” and “changes in immigration laws to make it easier for foreign-born graduates to remain in the United States.” Unfortunately, it was also announced that Microsoft and Intel will invest $2.7 billion in India workers. And the European Space Agency announced a $9.87 billion budget for projects in Europe, while Congress is cutting funding for training and research.

Put these facts together and a rational immigration policy path emerges. It has three major branches. First is the recognition that immigrants and their children are the workforce of the future. Second is that the counties who pay the initial cost of integrating immigrant families into the mainstream should be compensated. And third is to fast-track immigrant children through our education system and foster the skills needed by businesses.

These simple policies represent investment in all our futures. It replaces the building of walls and hiring border police with building schools and training more teachers. It is also more humane and continues the U.S. legacy as a nation whose richness and prosperity comes from its immigrants.


Peter Van Zant, a former Nevada County supervisor, is a consultant with a focus on organizational development and the issues of rural growth and economic advancement.

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