Immigration is once again at the forefront of American politics. Following President Trump’s infamous travel ban, the highly-publicized immigration raids, and the Day Without Immigrants protests in response, policymakers from both sides of the aisle are turning increasing attention to the need for immigration reform.
It is important, however, before diving into the political rhetoric, to have an accurate understanding of the vital role that immigrants play in our economy. New American Economy, a major bipartisan group of business leaders, celebrated a “Day of Impact for Immigration Reform” on February 21; I thought this was a good time to explore the issue in some detail.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the immigrant population was 42.4 million in 2014, accounting for 13.3 percent of the U.S. population. The “immigrant stock” in the U.S., first generation immigrants and their U.S.-born children, numbers around 81 million, over a quarter of the U.S. population. Given current immigration and birth rate trends, the Pew Research Center estimates that 93 percent of the growth in the working-age population through 2050 will be accounted for by immigrants and their children, which could grow to comprise close to 40 percent of the entire U.S. population. So while many try to frame the immigration debate as an “us and them” issue, it is important to realize that it is really just an “us” issue; the U.S. has always been and will remain a nation of immigrants.
Texas, more so than most other states, also has strong ties to immigration. Since the 1960s, over 60 percent of immigrants settled in just seven states – California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Texas. The state is continuing to receive a large portion of immigrants entering the US; from 2010 to 2014, the immigrant population in Texas grew by 8.7 percent, outpacing the growth rate in the nation. About one in six Texans are now foreign born.
In total, nearly 4.5 million Texans were born outside the US, approximately 16.7 percent of the state population. Texas has the second largest immigrant population in the U.S., behind California. The immigrant community in Texas makes a large contribution to the state economy. In 2014, immigrant-led households earned $118.7 billion and contributed more than one in every six dollars paid in local and state tax revenues. After taxes, these families held a collective $89.6 billion of net income available for additional spending in the state economy.
About 75.2 percent of the foreign-born population in Texas are of working age (aged 25 to 64), and immigrants made up 21.7 percent of the state’s workforce. The immigrant population provides a significant portion of the labor for numerous industries. For example, in Texas, immigrants make up about 60 percent of painters and maids/housekeeping cleaners; around 50 percent of grounds maintenance workers, construction laborers, and carpenters; and close to 40 percent of cooks, janitors/building cleaners, and welding, soldering, and brazing workers. In agriculture, an $11.2 billion industry in Texas, over 40 percent of hired farmworkers were foreign born in 2014. A 2015 study estimated that over 50 percent of laborers on U.S. dairy farms were immigrants.
While many immigrants are employed in labor-intensive industries, that is not the whole story. For example, immigrants comprise 24.5 percent of workers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields although they are only 16.7 percent of the entire state population. In fact, about 37 percent of software developers in Texas are foreign born. Currently, there is a large, unfilled demand for STEM workers in the state. In 2014, there were 11.3 STEM job openings for every one unemployed STEM worker in the state.
International students made up approximately one-third of the students seeking a STEM Master’s degree and close to half of those students seeking a PhD-level STEM degree at Texas universities in the same year. While these international students often wish to find employment in the U.S., the current immigration system makes it difficult for companies to sponsor them. Greater availability of qualified STEM workers in the state can fuel further growth and development in rapidly expanding and emerging industries. A study performed by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the American Enterprise Institute found that for every 100 foreign-born STEM workers with advanced degrees that are hired in a state, 262 additional jobs are created for native-born workers within seven years.
Immigrants also make up a substantial portion of the healthcare industry, a sector that is critical to long-term growth and faces chronic shortages in skilled personnel. In 2014, there were 5.6 healthcare job listings for every one unemployed healthcare worker in Texas. In 2016, more than a quarter of all physicians in Texas graduated from a foreign medical school. Moreover, close to 20 percent of all nurses and health aides in 2014 in the state were foreign born.
Immigrants also provide notable employment opportunities for others through starting their own business. According to a 2015 study performed by the Kauffman Foundation, immigrants are almost twice as likely to start a new business as those who are native born. Approximately 28.9 percent of entrepreneurs in Texas are foreign born. These firms generated $7.9 billion in income in 2014. At least 420,000 people in Texas are employed at firms owned by immigrants.
Through the years, foreign-born workers have filled important gaps in our state’s workforce. Immigrants account for large segments of many industries and can help meet future labor needs. The outdated immigration system, however, causes many problems for US firms trying to confront those needs. We need significant reform, but it needs to be focused on approaches that, while protecting our security, permit us to leverage this vital and indispensable resource to promote long-term prosperity. After all, immigrants are part of what made America great in the first place, and one need only look at our native-born demographics to realize that it will be that way for generations to come.