The criticisms we SHOULDN'T hear when talking about immigration reform

Photo: Jason Reed/Reuters

Yesterday, President Obama delivered a long-awaited address calling for “comprehensive, common sense immigration reform.”

As the nation considers federal immigration reform and building a new system that focuses on forwarding our national economy–both for the immigrants seeking opportunity and native born Americans–Metro Detroit is well-positioned to take advantage of whatever new policies emerge. Our state attracts an incredibly talented, entrepreneurial, educated, industriousness, and hard-working immigrant pool. With less than half the national average in terms of the percentage of our state population that is foreign born, Michigan actually ranks third in the proportion of its high-tech startups founded by immigrants at 32.8 percent (1995-2005). Metro Detroit possesses the second largest number of immigrants in the Great Lakes region. And immigrants are younger and much more likely to be of working-age than our state’s overall population–a critical fact given our state’s rapidly aging demographics.

More important than these statistics, however, Global Detroit has made our region a national leader in immigrant economic integration. With nearly $5 million of philanthropic investments in the nation’s first (and only) international student retention initiative, one of the nation’s largest Welcoming America state affiliates, a regional network of integration service providers, and an emerging micro-enterprise program to help revitalize Detroit neighborhoods, Global Detroit has already made our region one of the most attractive places for new Americans to settle. Governor Snyder’s Global Michigan effort also makes Michigan the only state with a specific state immigrant economic development initiative. These programs, as well as an emerging Global Lansing and other local efforts will prepare Michigan to take advantage of the new regulatory changes to attract the talent, investment, and energy inherent to immigrant reform.

The President began by stating that the U.S.’s long history of immigration contributed to creating the greatest and most innovative economy the world has ever known. Immigrants started companies like Google and Yahoo. Recently, immigrants founded one quarter of new start ups and started one in four new small businesses, President Obama noted.

“We’re giving them all the skills they need to figure that out, but then we’re going to turn around and tell them to start that business and create those jobs in China or India or Mexico or someplace else?  That’s not how you grow new industries in America.  That’s how you give new industries to our competitors.   That’s why we need comprehensive immigration reform.”

The room erupted in applause. And while “the foundation for bipartisan action is already in place,” this process, which the President hopes to move swiftly, will be rife with debate. As it should be. Yet, there are some points–guided by incorrect or no information–that should not be a part of the conversation on immigration reform:


The Criticism We Shouldn’t Hear Regarding Immigration Reform

Criticism #1: Why are we talking about immigration reform when we should be talking about the economy? Though immigration and the economy are often listed as separate agenda items, they are anything but separate issues. The major conversation change regarding immigration occurring on the hill, in our nation, and around the world that is creating bipartisan support for immigration reform is focused on the economy. The facts are clear–immigrants start businesses at twice the rate of Americans, currently found 25% of all start-ups in the nation, and are more likely to be of working age.

There are currently 2 million immigrants in the U.S. whose skills are being underutilized. (Doctors driving taxi cabs, anyone?) Our economy is suffering, this is true, and part of the answer could be as simple as using the resources in our backyard–the talented individuals who possess enormous potential to add to our market place. What would our economy look like if we unlocked that potential?

Criticism #2: Immigrants steal American jobs. A confounding circumstance: America’s unemployment hovers around 8% while American companies experience crippling labor shortages. How does this happen? The problem is that American employers are having a hard time filling positions which require skills not currently supplied by America’s unemployed, namely in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Recent studies show that immigrant labor does not displace or replace American jobs. Rather, it complements it.

While America’s overall job market sees high unemployment, the rate of unemployment among U.S. citizens with PhDs in the STEM fields is at just 3.15% (the U.S. government defines full employment at 4%). Immigrants make up 50% of all new U.S. Ph.D.s in engineering; 45% of all new U.S. Ph.D.s in life sciences, physical sciences, and computer sciences, 40% of all new U.S. Masters degrees in computers sciences, physical sciences, and engineering; and 35% of all practicing physicians.

While another issue entirely must address why American’s do not study STEM fields, the fact remains that dealing with America’s current labor shortage requires welcoming the needed talent, much of which already present in our universities and communities, that wants to contribute to our new economy.

Criticism #3: Immigrant labor depresses wages of native-born Americans. Again, this is a commonly held belief that has been proven untrue by studies. In fact, studies show that immigration positively affects the wages of American-born workers, This is explained by the fact that immigrants often provide complementary skills to the job market. A 2010 report by the Center for American Progress cites that immigration reform would in fact raise wages for native-born Americans as well as generate $1.5 trillion into the country’s GDP over 10 years. The report also estimates that a temporary worker program could bring in $792 billion over the next 10 years, and that deportation practices reduce the GPD by $2.6 trillion over that same time frame.


This is an exciting time. Finally, the moment has come to fix our broken and dated immigration system. Now, let’s make sure we’re having the right conversation.


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