[OPINION] Jonathan Aberman: We know noncitizen workers have huge role in local economy. A new study shows just how much.
June 7, 2018
By The 2030 Group
By: Jonathan Aberman
A study on the role of non-U.S. citizens in our region’s work force was released last week by the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. At a time when a lot of emotion surrounds the treatment of immigrants, I valued the opportunity to learn about the economic implications of removing these people from our work force.
Terry Clower, director of the CRA, explained why his colleagues had prepared this report. Because immigration has become such an emotionally charged issue, they wanted people concerned about the region’s economic future to have objective data to fully appreciate the role that foreign born, noncitizens play in its economy. As Clower put it, by gathering this data, we can all “frame important questions about the potential economic consequences” of national immigration policies and attitudes on our region’s growth potential.
The report shows us that our region has a lot at stake in the immigration debate.
Noncitizens are a significant portion of our region’s work force: close to 500,000 people and 15 percent of total workers. Many of these people have been our neighbors for a long time. Four out of five of them arrived in the U.S. prior to 2010. These are people who undoubtedly now have roots here with children in schools, and almost certainly pay taxes. They are also disproportionately important to several key local industries. Approximately half of the workers filling construction, cleaning, and maintenance occupations in our region are foreign-born non-citizens.
I asked Clower what surprised him the most about the data. He highlighted two findings. The first was how reliant our region’s construction industry is on the noncitizen labor force. Since construction is a particularly important industry in our region this was an important finding. His second was the breadth of work activities in our region that rely on noncitizen workers. This is a group that is far more knitted into our economy than many imagine.
Mark While, a co-author of the report, highlighted two additional data points that he thought were important. This first was that a quarter of our region’s noncitizen workforce is from El Salvador. This means that Trump administration’s plan to change the status of noncitizen Salvadorans is likely to have a direct effect on our economic growth trajectory.
He also noted that noncitizens comprise 10 percent of our region’s computer and math skilled workers. Not only are they a significant percentage of our high-tech work force, but also they, as a group, achieved comparatively higher levels of educational achievement than did citizens. At a time when the region already has a shortfall of technical talent, the non-citizen workers are even more indispensable. According to White, “There isn’t much slack in the workforce, so the region can’t afford to lose that 10 percent, let alone 5 percent or 2 percent.“
Knowing how important these industries are to the region’s economy, I asked Clower what would happen if noncitizens left the local work force, either because changes in enforcement of immigration laws forced them out, or never joined it, because a perception that immigrants were not welcome meant they never came here at all. He pointed to the historically low U.S. unemployment rate and the tightness of our job market, suggesting that if jobs currently being performed by noncitizens were not being filled, there would be some wage increases to encourage new employment, but that there just weren’t enough available workers to fill the openings that would be created. This meant that “while some would see higher wages, the total number of jobs would likely drop and the net economic effect could be very negative.” Our region’s economy would shrink while costs of doing business would increase.
Overall, the CRA report demonstrates to me how important it is to have an objective basis for making political and economic decisions. How we treat our noncitizens will have an economic effect on us all. This is not a partisan statement, but a statement of fact.
In discussions about immigration, like those about taxes, tariffs or energy, emotional arguments based on what we are sure is true may make some of us feel good in the moment. But these are all issues that benefit from a close study of shared facts because what we are sure is true often isn’t. We need to put aside emotion and deal in facts when figuring out what’s right for the region.
I want to live in a region that is growing and providing opportunities for all that live here. Adopting policies that cause key workers to leave or dissuade them from coming at all may be great politics. But it’s terrible economics and bad business.