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Robert Reich: The Truth About Immigration Reform and the Economy

July 2, 2013

Contrary to what critics say, immigration reform will reap economic benefits for all Americans.

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Image from Flickr via Anuska Sampedro

By Robert Reich
By arrangement with Robert Reich.

The battle over immigration reform is often about economic fear— fear that immigrants are hurting the economy for native-born Americans. But that fear is based on several economic myths.

Myth One: Immigration reform will strain already overburdened government safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Wrong.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office finds that immigration reform will actually reduce the budget deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars.

Why is that? Because while they seek citizenship, undocumented workers will be required to pay into Social Security and Medicare even though they won’t be eligible for them.

What we’ve seen over the last two hundred years is that new immigrants to America fuel that growth, and thereby create more jobs for everyone.

They’re also younger on average than the typical worker, so even when they’re citizens they’ll be paying into Social Security and Medicare far longer.

Myth Two: New immigrants take away jobs from native-born Americans.

Wrong again.

The economy doesn’t contain a fixed number of jobs to be divided up among people who need them. As an economy grows, it creates more jobs. And what we’ve seen over the last two hundred years is that new immigrants to America fuel that growth, and thereby create more jobs for everyone.

We’ve also learned that new immigrants are by definition ambitious. They wouldn’t have borne all the risks and hardships of immigrating to the United States if they weren’t. And that ambition and hard work help the economy grow even faster.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that immigration reform will increase economic growth by more than 3 percent ten years from now, 5 percent in twenty years.

Three wrongs don’t make a right. The right answer is immigration reform is not only good for undocumented workers. It’s also good for the rest of us.

Ambition also helps explain why the children of new immigrants earn more college degrees, on average, than the children of native-born Americans.

And why their incomes are higher than their parent’s incomes.

All of which also helps grow the economy and create more jobs.

Myth Three: We don’t need new immigrants.

Wrong again.

The American population is aging rapidly. Forty years ago there were five workers for every retiree. Now there are three. If present trends continue, there will be only two workers for every retiree by the year 2030.

No economy can survive on a ratio of two workers per retiree.

But because new immigrants are on average younger than native-born Americans, they’ll help bring that ratio back down. They’re needed so we can continue to have a vibrant economy.

Get it? Three wrongs don’t make a right. The right answer is immigration reform is not only good for undocumented workers. It’s also good for the rest of us.

Robert B. Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including his latest best-seller, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future; The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, Beyond Outrage. His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

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