Editorial: The economic case for immigration

  • Updated: November 20, 2009 - 7:00 PM

Economic growth depends on replacing today's aging workforce.

In the shallow, often misinformed rhetoric over immigration, we too seldom hear the case for reform made in economic terms.

That may be changing -- at least in Minnesota. A new report from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute and the Minnesota Business Immigration Coalition pulls together compelling evidence that even in this mostly homogeneous state -- where the immigrant population is small but growing -- immigrants are playing an increasingly important role in the economy, and we will depend more on their contributions as boomers leave the workforce.

Consider these facts:

• Foreign-born workers make up the majority of growth in the labor force in the state, and immigrant workers are concentrated in both high- and low-skilled jobs.

• Immigrants represent 25 percent of the physicians and 40 percent of the engineers holding doctoral degrees in this country.

• There is a shortage of 126,000 nurses in the United States -- and rural Minnesota is projecting a shortage of 8,000 RNs in the next decade -- but the average wait for a nurse to get a green card is six years.

• If immigrants were removed from Minnesota's labor force, the state would lose more than 24,000 permanent jobs and $1.2 billion in personal income.

• Many immigrants start new businesses, pay taxes, revitalize neighborhoods and buy products and services, and there is convincing evidence that immigrant employment helps create job opportunities for all workers.

According to projections, there will be more retirees than children in elementary school in Minnesota by 2020. The Brookings Institution says Minnesota will lose more than 350,000 highly skilled workers to retirement in the next decade in a demographic wave some are calling a "silver tsunami.''

The vital importance of the immigrant workforce was made clear last week at the university, where a panel convened to discuss the economic impact report from the U's Prof. Katherine Fennelly and Anne Huart. Not lost on those in attendance was the irony that just one day earlier, the Star Tribune had reported that 1,200 workers with American Building Maintenance Co. in the Twin Cities had left their jobs after an audit found that they were working illegally. The crackdown highlighted the Obama administration's new focus on targeting employers rather than deportation. Instead of being taken into custody, the workers were allowed to go home. But they went home unemployed.

The Fennelly-Huart report should be required reading for members of Congress. And our elected officials should endorse the economic case for a reform package that would force illegal immigrants to come forward and earn legal status. Reform must include new border enforcement policies, and our visa programs should be overhauled to better reflect the need for low- and high-skilled workers.

To their credit, business leaders in Minnesota are stepping up the pressure on Washington by making the case that despite short-term costs, over the long run immigrants strengthen the economy as workers, consumers and employees. The evidence is overwhelming: We will need to replace today's workforce, and we can't afford to exclude immigrants from the solution.

  • MAKING THE CASE

    "If we want to have our economy continue to evolve and grow, we need an immigration law that recognizes the world economy that we're in.''

    Bill Blazar, senior vice president, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce

    •••

    "We need very high-skilled immigrant workers to fill our jobs at the Mayo Clinic and Microsoft, and we need people at the beginning of the workforce stage to fill the positions that the new generation of high school graduates and college students aren't going to fill.''

    John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota

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