The Economic Impact of Immigrants - Recent Research and Anecdotal Evidence Indicate That Immigrants Are Having a Positive Effect on the American Economy

By Lance, Bronwyn | The World and I, May 2000 | Go to article overview

The Economic Impact of Immigrants - Recent Research and Anecdotal Evidence Indicate That Immigrants Are Having a Positive Effect on the American Economy


Lance, Bronwyn, The World and I


When Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan speaks, people listen. Indeed, the power of his words is such that world markets fluctuate at his merest utterance, and entire roomfuls of reporters will race for the telephone upon hearing a particularly oracular comment. Recently, when speaking on the topic of aggregate demand, Greenspan told Congress that the United States should be considering "expanding the number of people we allow in."

In an era of high immigration to America, the very notion of encouraging a steady--let alone increasing--number of immigrants has been met with vehement naysaying. Immigration foes range from Pat Buchanan--type isolationist Republicans, who want to fence America in to keep foreigners from corrupting our culture, to union Democrats who maintain that immigrants steal jobs from Americans. In 1996, anti- immigrant forces in Congress passed an omnibus bill, signed into law by President Clinton, that was harsh on almost every aspect of immigration.

One argument used by those favoring this legislation is that immigrants are a drain on our economy. This law forced anyone who wants to sponsor an immigrant family member to earn 125 percent of the poverty level, and the 1996 welfare-reform law kicked noncitizens off the welfare rolls. Still, immigrants do not need a handout; by most accounts, they are doing better than ever. Recent research and anecdotal evidence indicate that immigrants, both skilled and nonskilled, are having a very positive and visible effect on the U.S. economy.

Successful immigrants not a cliche

The idea of immigrants coming to the United States with very little and ending up successful is not a worn-out cliche. A stroll through one of the many vibrant, ethnic neighborhoods that have taken root in our cities will reveal that foreign-born Americans, both past and present, have renovated countless blighted areas.

Long before the Vietnamese moved to northern Virginia and the Ethiopians and Central Americans revitalized the inner city of Washington, D.C., New York had a Little Italy, Chicago had its Polish neighborhood, and San Francisco had a Chinatown. In each of these places, immigrants of our great-grandparents' era heard the same epithets hurled at them: They would never assimilate, they would never learn English, and they were stealing jobs.

Far from being charity cases who drain the economy, these new immigrants are contributing to the current economic boom. The Hispanic video stores, Ethiopian restaurants, and Vietnamese jewelers do a brisk trade and employ both foreign- and native-born Americans. Yes, immigrants usually come to our shores with very little, but due to the choices they make, frequently scrimping and saving every penny, they often end up as homeowners and business owners in a short time.

Take the example of Sedad Karic, a Bosnian refugee who came to Jacksonville, Florida, in 1996 with only his wife and small son, his father's watch, and a cat. Speaking almost no English, Karic began working within two weeks of his arrival as a garbage collector. Within two years, he and his wife had saved enough to put a down payment on a three-bedroom house on the south side of Jacksonville. Today, Karic works as an employment specialist and his wife is employed at Merrill Lynch. "It's all about choices," Karic said. "My wife and I chose not to spend money foolishly, and we saved every penny to buy our house."

There are many, many other examples of individual immigrant success stories, from Andrew Grove, the founder of Intel and one of Time magazine's Man of the Year honorees, to Babiso Baramo, an Ethiopian in Arlington, Virginia, who works as both a parking garage attendant and a cab driver, owns his own home, supports his wife and children, and has never missed a mortgage payment. "Occasionally, Americans have called me 'greedy' for working so much," relates Baramo, who works an average of 15 hours per day. …

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