I am proud that my hometown Houston embraces immigrants. It would be great for the U.S. economy if the rest of America did as well.

immigrants
Hayley Arana, 2, with her mother Cynthia Diaz, waiting to get a passport in Houston, 14 August 2012 (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Nick de la Torre)

By Ella Hough

As a native Houstonian, I am proud that my hometown embraces diversity. If you walk around the city, you will see people of many different ethnicities and hear a multitude of languages being spoken.

Immigrants account for a greater share of Houston’s population than in the United States in general, and they contribute a great deal to the local economy.

There were 1.6 million immigrants in Houston in 2016, representing 23% of the southern city’s population, according to a bipartisan research organization. In the United States as a whole, immigrants made up 14% of the population in 2017, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Migrants work in a variety of sectors in Houston and paid $12.7 billion in taxes and spent $38.2 billion in 2016, according to New American Economy (NEA). About 130,000 immigrants are entrepreneurs, it estimated.

“Houston became a truly remarkable story,” said Stephen Klineberg, the founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and a professor at Rice University. “No one planned this. No one thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be great for Houston to become the center for new immigration?’ It just happened. It happened in a way that ended up benefiting Houston enormously.”

The United States can and does benefit from immigration. But not all Americans think immigrants should be welcomed.

Immigration has become a deeply partisan issue. Democrats and those who lean to the Democratic Party overwhelmingly say immigrants are a strength to the nation, while only 38% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe immigrants strengthen the country, according to a survey published earlier this year by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Many politicians treat migrants as scapegoats. They overstate the extent to which immigrants commit crimes. Or they ignore evidence that immigrants help boost the U.S. economy.

Many immigrants create successful companies.

There is ample data that immigrants contribute to economic growth, NEA executive director Jeremy Robbins told Houston Matters. After the Great Recession of 2007-09, cities that allowed migrants to come in and start new businesses recovered the fastest, he said.

Many individuals from other countries create companies. Immigrants have founded more than half of America’s startup companies valued at $1 billion or more, according to a study by the National Foundation for American Policy. On average, each of these “unicorn” startups created 760 jobs, the study found.

Under U.S. law, it can be difficult for immigrants to enter the country and work.

“The reason we have so many undocumented immigrants is that we have not allowed for the last 30 years immigrants to come to this country to do the jobs that we desperately needed to have done by people who desperately needed to do them,” Klineberg said.

“We just locked them out, so that they only way they could get here would be without proper papers.”

In 2013, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would allow the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants to attain legal status. The measure never made it through the House of Representatives.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill would have added $900 billion to the U.S. economy, Robbins said.

We need to enable talented professionals to contribute.

Without legislative reform, many obstacles will continue to prevent immigrants from moving to or working in America.

It can be difficult for foreign workers to obtain visas. Robbins said the United States should look at countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Singapore and Chile, which have streamlined the process for immigrants to obtain work visas.

Job certificates and professional qualifications are not always recognized by U.S. employers. Reforms could make it easier to hire foreign-trained professionals, subject to proper checks.

Sensational media coverage and overheated political rhetoric obscure the real issues. Bipartisan legislative reform could balance security risks and potential job losses against the benefits of a more open immigration policy.

As Houston shows, immigration can benefit America as a whole.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. What is the population of Houston? What percentage of them are immigrants?
  2. In what ways can immigrants contribute to their new home country? In what ways can they create policy challenges?
  3. Why has immigration become such a hot topic in American politics in recent?

Ella Hough

Ella Hough is in her second year of high school at Miss Porter’s School in the United States and a self-proclaimed “hodophile,” or one who loves to travel, with a goal to visit 30 countries by age 30. Hough participates in Porter’s Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship program and last year spent seven weeks in rural Tanzania as a volunteer. Her bags are packed for School Year Abroad China next academic year.

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