Illegal immigrants benefit the U.S. economy

There are few subjects that evoke as much emotion as immigration reform, especially since future laws could result in a path to citizenship for over 11 million illegal immigrants.

When analyzed from the vantage point of information derived from reputable, nonpartisan sources (the Pew Research Center, USDA, United States Department of Labor, and leading economists and researchers) then one can obtain a clearer view of this muddled discussion. The truth of the matter is that illegal immigrants are important to the U.S. economy, as well as vital to certain industries like agriculture.

According to the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, there were 8.4 million unauthorized immigrants employed in the U.S.; representing 5.2 percent of the U.S. labor force (an increase from 3.8 percent in 2000). Their importance was highlighted in a report by Texas Comptroller Susan Combs that stated, “Without the undocumented population, Texas’ work force would decrease by 6.3 percent” and Texas’ gross state product would decrease by 2.1 percent.  Furthermore, certain segments of the U.S. economy, like agriculture, are entirely dependent upon illegal immigrants.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture states that, “about half of the hired workers employed in U.S. crop agriculture were unauthorized, with the overwhelming majority of these workers coming from Mexico.” The USDA has also warned that, “any potential immigration reform could have significant impacts on the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry.” From the perspective of National Milk Producers Federation in 2009, retail milk prices would increase by 61 percent if its immigrant labor force were to be eliminated. 

Echoing the Department of Labor, the USDA, and the National Milk Producers Federation, agricultural labor economist James S. Holt made the following statement to Congress in 2007: “The reality, however, is that if we deported a substantial number of undocumented farm workers, there would be a tremendous labor shortage.”

In terms of overall numbers, The Department of Labor reports that of the 2.5 million farm workers in the U.S., over half (53 percent) are illegal immigrants. Growers and labor unions put this figure at 70 percent.

But what about the immense strain on social services and money spent on welfare for these law breakers? The Congressional Budget Office in 2007 answered this question in the following manner: “Over the past two decades, most efforts to estimate the fiscal impact of immigration in the United States have concluded that, in aggregate and over the long term, tax revenues of all types generated by immigrants—both legal and unauthorized—exceed the cost of the services they use.”  According to the New York Times, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration claims that undocumented workers have contributed close to 10% ($300 billion) of the Social Security Trust Fund.

Finally, the aggregate economic impact of illegal immigration is debatable, but any claim that they’ve ruined the country doesn’t correlate to the views of any notable economist. An open letter to President George W. Bush in 2006, signed by around five hundred economists (including five Nobel laureates) stated the following:  “While a small percentage of native-born Americans may be harmed by immigration, vastly more Americans benefit from the contributions that immigrants make to our economy, including lower consumer prices.”

Although Harvard economist Jorge Borjas has stated that illegal immigrants from 1980-2000 have reduced the wages of high school dropouts in the U.S, he also states that the average American’s wealth has increased by 1 percent because of illegal immigration. In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, UC Davis economist Giovanni Peri stated that new laws are needed to meet demands within industries like construction, agriculture, and hospitality: “In recent decades, the high demand for these services and the pressure for keeping their cost low and prices competitive have generated incentives to hire undocumented workers.”

Some people claim that illegal immigrants represent an assault on our sovereignty. If this is true, then it might be the first time in world history that a country has employed its invaders. When illegal immigrants cross the border, there’s a citizen waiting to hire them and benefit in some manner from their labor. The sooner our country realizes that immigration reform should be based upon the views of economists and nonpartisan academic researchers, rather than think tanks and radio show hosts, then Congress will finally be able to help solve this national dilemma.  

Goodman is an author and journalist.