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Immigration reform would immediately benefit Minnesota

welcome to minnesota sign
Minnesota is a state of immigrants.

Immigrants are important to Minnesota. Rural or urban, north or south, first ring suburbs or newest exurb, immigrants are an essential part of Minnesota’s economic and cultural fabric. A recent study, Economic Benefits of Immigration Reform in Minnesota, from the Center for American Progress and the American Federation of State County and Municipal workers examines the economic impact of the national immigration reform act in Minnesota. $4.8 billion is nothing to sneeze at.

John Van Hecke
 John Van Hecke

Minnesota is a state of immigrants. Just after statehood in 1858, Germans and Irish constituted the first immigrant wave. Thirty years later, Scandinavians poured into Minnesota. During the early 20th century, immigration from southern and eastern Europe boomed. As the First World War started, roughly 70 percent of Minnesotans were foreign born or had at least one foreign-born parent. That percentage declined as new immigrants settled, producing second- and third-generation Minnesotans.

In 1921, easy immigration access ended with the federal Emergency Quota Act. An immigration quota system was established, limiting new immigrants to 3 percent of the number of people originating from the same country, determined by the 1910 census. Subsequent legislation further narrowed immigration opportunities, effectively closing the door on people from non-Northern European countries. Once immediate cheap labor needs were met, first and second generation Americans were quick to restrict the access that allowed their families into the U.S.

Despite the heavy-handed immigration reforms of the 1920s, immigration to the U.S. never halted. It only slowed. Economic growth and expansion required more workers than citizen birthrate could accommodate. Today, scholars distinguish between new immigrants’ political and economic motivations. Political persecution forces some people to flee their homelands. Civil war creates widespread population movement and economic disruption as whole groups of people flee fighting. Those people, classified as refugees, fall under the political immigrant classification.

Economic migrants seek greater income earning opportunities than their home countries afford. Mexican and Central American migration to the United States are examples of immigrants behaving as earlier generations of Northern European immigrants behaved, looking to escape homeland poverty. Rising American prosperity seemed to give proof to the promise that hard work and honest labor was rewarded.

Despite convenient, popular political objections, the American marketplace clearly welcomes illegal, economic immigrants. Conservative policy advocates may decry illegal immigration’s tolerance as examples of a declining respect for rule-of-law, but those same activists happily profit from illegal migrant labor.

As the Immigration Benefits report reveals, Minnesota gains from creating a legal citizenship path for undocumented workers. Job creation is real, but modest, a projected 691 jobs annually for 10 years, largely because undocumented workers are already working and contributing to Minnesota’s economy. Worker contributions to Social Security over a generation will exceed draw by over 2-1, creating a net growth of $606.4 billion.

Most importantly, immigration reform grows Minnesota’s economy. If a comprehensive immigration bill passes this year, Minnesota could expect a $4.8 billion cumulative increase in gross state product over the next 10 years. That constitutes a projected $2.7 billion increase in the earnings of all Minnesota residents. Immigrants alone will generate an additional $2.3 billion in earnings growth while paying $219 million in state and local taxes. Blocking immigration reform and keeping the present system in place leaves an extraordinary amount of money on the table.

Think of immigration as a bow tie. In fashion terms, a bow tie is a knot applied to a short length of decorative fabric, worn symmetrically around the throat and under a shirt collar. The bow knot easily secures the tie while simultaneously allowing for easy release.

Men’s and women’s bow ties rise and fall in fashion popularity as successive generations embrace or reject it. But, the bow tie never really goes away as an accessory. It’s been a mainstreamed, wildly popular necktie and it’s been deeply marginalized, the iconoclast’s neckwear. The same holds for immigration. It grows and contracts in popularity, yet never disappears. Bow ties, like immigration, are elemental.

Growth — economic, community, demographic — is, as a 2012 Minnesota 2020 report found, inseparable from immigration. New arrivals nourish and affirm the American dream, but only if immigrants are allowed to realize the path to citizenship. Immigration reform immediately benefits Minnesota. Bow ties are making a comeback. It’s past time for immigration reform to keep up.

 John Van Hecke is the executive director and a Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan, progressive think tank based in St. Paul. This commentary originally appeared on its website.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 09/04/2013 - 11:25 am.

    An Antidote to Irrational Fear

    Van Hecke’s article is a most welcome reminder of who immigrants are and what they accomplish. I am a teacher of English as a second language, and the adult learners in my classroom are among the hardest workers I know, despite the fact that they generally work for low pay.

    Fear of equal rights for immigrants is no different from fear of equal rights for any other category of human beings. Irrational xenophobia insinuates that we weaken human rights when we share them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, we weaken human rights when we try to keep them to ourselves and build walls to keep others out. The problem of undocumented immigrants demonstrates this effect clearly. If we deny foreign-born workers the same rights at the workplace, they are exploited – deprived of safety, equal pay, and fair treatment – and as a result, we undermine our own wages and job security. Immigrant workers don’t do this to us – we do it to ourselves, by denying them their equal rights.

    It is my conviction as an environmentalist that our natural resources are limited, and it’s also my conviction that in the future, improvements in technological efficiency rather than crudely quantitative growth will be the source of all real wealth. I will therefore never argue from the antiquated assumption that the first needful thing is economic growth in the purely quantitative sense, and that anything that promotes this must be inherently good. However, Van Hecke is entirely correct that immigrants carry their own weight economically – indeed, they produce more and consume less than native-born workers do. They are no impediment to the greater economic efficiency or qualitative improvement that I believe is the first priority of environmentally responsible economic policy. Moreover, if we accept the challenge of treating immigrant workers fairly, I will feel better about the future, because I doubt that we will make the change from a colonial economy to a climax economy peacefully unless we make it a habit to share the benefits and burdens of this change as equitably as we can.

    It is hideously wasteful to throw money at border control measures that have never demonstrated any prospect of success. It is stupid and contrary to all experience to expect that we can slow the pace of migration by withholding the papers that workers need to work legally. Above all, the human injury that we inflict with our cruel policy of detention and deportation, which rips thousands of families apart and does real emotional and even physical harm to immigrants just like my own ancestors, is a moral outrage. It is shocking to look at the cruelty we are capable of imposing on our own neighbors because of nothing but fear – dumb, irrational fear. And there is no earthly reason for it.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/04/2013 - 04:10 pm.

    Red Herring 101

    This isn’t about “immigrants.” Everyone knows and agrees that this nation was founded with the help of immigrants who worked hard and asked for little in return.

    This debate is about the coming flood of millions of illegal immigrants. Rather than spouting the imaginary numbers of created jobs and projected tax revenue, why don’t you research and report on the tens of millions being spent because of illegals attending our public schools, being treated at the local hospital emergency rooms, jamming our court system and occupying our prisons and jail cells?

    We’re either a sovereign nation or we’re not. And in a perfect world they’d be no need for borders. But as long as this nation is a welfare state, where people come here for free education, medical care, food, clothing and shelter, we must secure our borders or we’ll be bankrupt. If 17 trillion in national debt and 18% unemployment amongst the unskilled isn’t already bankrupt. It’s a simple as that.

    • Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 09/05/2013 - 01:13 pm.

      Yes, this is about immigrants.

      Unless you can provide numbers to show that immigrants cost us more than they benefit us – and I’m confident that you can’t – all that you have written is only so much hot air. If immigrants benefit us more than they cost us, there’s no way they can bankrupt us, there’s no way that they are adding to our government’s debt, and there’s no way that they are overburdening our social services. Immigrant workers pay payroll taxes and sales taxes, just as native-born workers do. If we think they’re not paying enough in taxes, it would be easy to make them pay more – by paying them higher wages.

      Immigrants cannot put native-born workers out of work unless they have superior job skills. This happens only in the case of highly-educated immigrants, not in the case of immigrants with little education, which is why it is irrational for xenophobes to fear them. Most economic refugees have little education and are at a distinct competitive disadvantage compared to natives, because they don’t speak English. Since most jobs require high proficiency in English, most of us don’t have to fear that we will ever lose our jobs to immigrants, no matter how unskilled we may otherwise be. Moreover, if it really were generally the case that our native-born workers were not skilled enough to compete with foreign-born workers, we would lose jobs to them whether they chose to immigrate here or not. The solution is not to restrict immigration; it’s to provide better and cheaper education and job training here at home.

      Undocumented immigrants who keep silent out of fear of deportation are of course an attractive option for dishonest employers who cheat them by paying less than the minimum wage, and this illegal activity does hurt native-born workers by depressing the earning power of labor. However, the solution to this problem is not to deport the immigrants who blow the whistle. The solution is to punish the employers who cheat.

      A similar point can be made in regard to union wages. Undocumented workers who are denied the right to organize are a threat to the power of unions. Immigrants workers who are given the same rights as native-born workers can and will strengthen unions as they organize and collectively bargain to improve the wages and working conditions of all workers, both foreign-born and native-born. Look at history, and you will see that immigrant workers have always been quick to unionize. The only impediment was the reluctance on the part of native-born trade unionists to accept them.

      If we did not choose to ration work permits for immigrants, we would not be jamming our legal system and our prisons with so-called illegal workers. I’m sure undocumented immigrants agree with you wholeheartedly that they would rather not be “jammed” into our legal system, but it’s not their fault that this is what we do to them.

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