Immigrants Are Burden, Blessing for United States

By Henderson, Tim | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 27, 2015 | Go to article overview

Immigrants Are Burden, Blessing for United States


Henderson, Tim, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


WASHINGTON - As a teenage refugee from war-torn Bosnia 20 years ago, Ned Halilovic asked for a small, safe place to live and ended up in West Fargo, N.D.

Few in town spoke his language, and Mr. Halilovic spoke no English. He started high school within a week of arriving and so he needed to learn the language of his new country. He got his diploma in 18 months.

"I set out to learn 20 words a day," said Mr. Halilovic, now 37 and a college graduate. "That was my goal, starting with 'table,' 'chair.' When you are forced to do it, it goes much smoother, much faster."

Young immigrants remain a constant in North Dakota and South Dakota. Immigrants there are the youngest in the country, with a median age of 34. And more than in any other state, they are new arrivals, having come to the U.S. after 2010. They often speak little English, like Mr. Halilovic.

And the states are investing millions of dollars in helping these new immigrants learn English and acclimate to American culture, hopeful that it will pay off with economic activity. Mr. Halilovic's cleaning business in West Fargo employs 72 people, many of whom are young immigrants.

Immigrants fill many of the country's labor gaps: from low-skilled work in agriculture to high-skilled work in science and technology. An Economic Policy Institute study last year calculated that while only 13 percent of U.S. residents were immigrants, they produced nearly 15 percent of U.S. economic output.

Having an immigrant population that is younger often means the newcomers are contributing to a state's workforce, which can increase the tax base. But it also can mean young families that have children. And that can burden public schools, which are obligated to teach students who don't speak English.

Having an immigrant population that skews older can mean a state has a greater percentage of immigrants who have aged out of the workforce and may need help with health care, housing and retirement - though not always.

Hawaii and Florida have the oldest immigrant populations in the nation, with median ages in the late forties. They have been receiving immigrants - in Hawaii, many are from Asia, and in Florida, many are from Cuba - in large numbers for more than 50 years. And the immigrants have settled in enclaves where many speak the same language or share the same culture.

Immigrants in Hawaii and Florida also tend to be more affluent than immigrants in other states. Eugene Tian, an economic analyst at Hawaii's Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, said immigrants are generally as well off as Hawaiians who are born there.

In Florida, older immigrants have been a boon to the housing industry, which has struggled since the mortgage crisis hit in 2007.

"Those folks have been doing a lot of homebuying and in a lot of cases they're paying cash," said Christopher McCarty, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida. Affluent immigrants, he said, see Florida as a good investment and a good destination with Hispanic-friendly communities.

In contrast, many of the immigrants arriving in the Dakotas are like Mr. …

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