Immigrants and the American Economy

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Every day, people around the world face difficult decisions that may require them to leave their home country. Some will only move a few miles, others will go far away in search of opportunity and a better life. People who make the choice to migrate for a permanent change in their lives are called immigrants. They research their destination, learn the language and work hard to integrate into their new society. Many of them have to give up their family and friends as they make the difficult transition to a different way of life. They are not alone, however. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States. This increased demand for asylum has put pressure on the immigration system and has fueled anti-immigrant sentiment, with anti-immigrant attitudes reflected in political leaders and media commentators, social movement organisations that publish reports and policy briefs, and even unauthorised militia groups that patrol the U.S. border, such as the Minutemen.

Historically, the United States has been a nation of immigrants, with the doors wide open to almost anyone who wished to come. As modernisation spread throughout the Old World in the 18th and 19th centuries, the American frontier beckoned to those seeking land and prosperity. In the early 20th century, a backlash against immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe led to restrictive immigration laws that closed the door to most European immigration (Higham 1988; Jones 1992: Chapter 9).

Today, about one third of international migrants are from Asia and half are from Latin America. Most of these migrants are in search of work. On average, these people have less education than the native born population, but this does not necessarily mean that they are unskilled workers. Many immigrants are employed in the construction industry, as caregivers in nursing homes and hospitals, or in restaurants and hotels.

While immigrants are a vital component of the American economy, the perception persists that they drain government coffers, resulting in an overburdened welfare state. But the vast majority of immigration-related expenditures are spent on housing, food and clothing, not on public benefits or services. It is important to note that in the past, high levels of immigration have helped stimulate economic growth by raising labour supply and boosting consumer spending.

Immigrants also bolster our national birth rate, which has dropped to low levels among the native-born population. A low birth rate can lead to a loss of worker productivity and reduced economic growth. Immigrants help counter these effects, and provide vitality to local communities, where they are a key source of retail sales, restaurant customers, and homeowners.

In general, the term “immigrant” refers to those who intend to stay in a new country for a long period of time and gain legal status as citizens. In contrast, nonimmigrants are those who plan to stay in their new countries temporarily or for a short period of time, such as travelers, seasonal workers and students.