The Importance of Immigration

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Since the earliest times, people have been on the move—to search for economic opportunity, to join family or seek higher education, to escape conflict and human rights abuses, and in many cases, to survive environmental challenges. When people migrate to a new country, they are called immigrants. The term “immigrant” applies to anyone living in a nation other than the one in which they were born or naturalized, regardless of whether they have taken citizenship in their new home, served in its military, married a native, or been granted any other status.

Immigrants have made innumerable contributions to the economy and society of the United States. Yet, they remain invisible in many settings and are frequently mischaracterized. For example, some believe that immigrants disproportionately take jobs from American workers or rely on government benefits, but these claims are false (see “Myths about Immigration”). The truth is that, while they may compete for certain positions in the labor market and may pay lower wages, overall they stimulate growth in the economy through increased productivity, capital formation, demand for goods and services, and tax contributions to the public treasury.

Some of the fastest-growing economies in the world today are those that depend on the talents, energy and drive of their immigrant populations. In the United States, immigrant entrepreneurs and employees in service occupations contribute more than $1.3 trillion to our national economy. In fact, immigrants are more likely to start businesses than other Americans. They are also essential front-line health, education and social service professionals. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, immigrant health care and education workers risked their lives to ensure that the needs of local communities were met.

While it is true that the unauthorized population is concentrated in a few major metropolitan areas, most of these individuals reside in California, New York and other traditional destinations for newcomers. However, a growing number are moving to towns and cities in the Midwest and Southeast.

Among the reasons for this trend is that, as they settle, immigrants are seeking better opportunities in industries such as high technology and academia. They are also responding to the deteriorating conditions in their countries of origin, where poverty, civil unrest, gang violence and environmental degradation persist.

To help students explore the motivations of immigrants, assign them to research and analyze the stories of the ancestors of celebrities such as Stephen Colbert, Mario Batali, Kristi Yamaguchi and others. Have them record the motivating factors that they discover, comparing similar themes across people and time periods. Then ask them to write an explanation of why those factors would be the same, or not, for immigrants coming from different countries and time periods. You can then use these responses as the basis for a discussion about how we can best support the migrant population in our society. Alternatively, you can have students create their own profiles of immigrants from various countries and time periods and present them to the class.