Bruce Corrie, associate vice president of Concordia University in St. Paul, is director of its international programs and an economist who studies the economic impact of immigrants and minorities. A faculty member since 1987, Corrie also is an Indian immigrant who earned his doctorate from the University of Notre Dame. He has served on the board of the U.S. Small Business Administration, Governor’s Workforce Development Council, Governor’s Working Group on Minority Business Development and the World Cultural Heritage District. He discussed the economic impact of immigrants:
Q: Why did you get interested in this subject?
A: I found the popular perception portrayed in the media was that immigrants and minorities were a burden to society. The facts told a different story. U.S. Census data [showed] they contributed to the economy in very powerful ways, as consumers, workers, entrepreneurs, taxpayers, human capital with talents and skills, cultural assets. I call this ethnic/immigrant capital. Immigrants and minorities are assets, not deficits.
Q: Are immigrants a drag on our economy, at least initially?
A: The best data was commissioned by the National Research Council, first in 1992 and again in 2016. These reports concluded there is a small net positive economic impact of immigrants. There was also a small weak negative impact on the low-skilled labor market. In terms of cost to taxpayers, it was a positive contribution at the federal level and a negative impact at the state and local level. Immigrants use state-and-local services. However, the costs were of a short-term nature. In the long run, there was a net positive benefit.
Take the Hmong. They first came to Minnesota [in the 1970-80s] and initially needed assistance getting on their feet. They were fleeing war. They did not speak English. High poverty rates. Today the chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis is a young dynamic Ph.D., Maykao Hang. We have authors like Kao Kalia Yang, who weaves words and phrases of English into a musical melody. Many business owners. And a Hmong Chamber of Commerce.
Take the Asian Indians, who mainly came … to meet the needs of the internet economy. You will see incomes over the national average. In 2000, America trembled at the thought of the economy collapsing because of the Y2K scare. Skilled workers from India and elsewhere saved the day. Immigrant entrepreneurs revitalize distressed neighborhoods … and transform the high tech corridors. Indian curry has become a new hot dish of Minnesota!
Q: I’ve eaten some of that. What else?
A: Immigrant consumers are a critical engine of economic growth. The National Research Council study did not incorporate the impact of immigrants on particular sectors of the economy such as health care. However, visit a nursing home or a hospital. Imagine if the immigrants walked out. A disaster!
Q: What are the issues underlying undocumented immigrants, working without citizenship?
A: The issue is complex. We have a dysfunctional immigration policy. In the case of the undocumented, it was a “wink and nod” policy. We needed [the workers] in the fields and rooftops. We never developed a “guest worker” policy or program that would cater to the short-term needs of the economy. In Minnesota … we still do not treat them well. I am particularly referring to workers from Mexico. I looked at their various economic contributions of people of Mexican origin and can reasonably say they are … a tremendous economic resource, and definitely unappreciated.
They contribute more to the Minnesotan economy than they receive through public services.
Q: Is the criticism that immigrants “steal” jobs from U.S. workers correct?
A: Minnesota data shows we have labor shortages and low unemployment rates. Immigrants do work that natives do not want or do not have the skills [for]. Anecdotal evidence suggests some employers are abusing immigrants … by offering them lower wages than the market. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that immigrants because of their quest for economic survival, work harder and longer than native workers. Some employers prefer them.
Immigrants have always been good for America even during times … of fear when we put them into internment camps such as Japanese Americans. All those fears proved baseless. Minnesota has been a welcoming place for immigrants and refugees.
Q: What do we need to do?
A: We are not doing enough to retool our low-skilled workers and develop an economic system that works for all. We have instead made immigrants scapegoats on whose necks we hang our own economic and cultural anxieties. Immigrants should also be aware that they are coming to a new society and should leave behind the old politics and rivalries of the home country. The debate about immigration is not about facts and data. It is more about cultural and economic anxiety. Unless we address these anxieties in positive ways, others will inflame hatred and xenophobia.