Immigrants residing in Virginia are better educated and more entrepreneurial than commonly perceived, says a new report by the Commonwealth Institute (CI), “Virginia Immigrants in the Economy.”
Yet immigrants’ contributions to the U.S. economy are often minimized by “some state and federal lawmakers,” adds a press release accompanying the report. In truth, immigrants make our communities and economy stronger, says Laura Goren, CI research director and co-author. “Too many politicians are using scare tactics and divisive rhetoric about immigrants to advance their own agendas.”
Grrrr. I must take issue.
In attributing “scare tactics and divisive rhetoric” to shadowy others, Goren is guilty of the very behavior she decries. Whether due to simple naivete or deliberate obfuscation, I don’t know, she conflates legal immigrants with illegal immigrants. Thus, legal immigrants, who make a large positive contribution to Virginia’s economy, provide statistical cover for illegal immigrants, whose net contribution is problematic.
That’s an turn-off to readers who otherwise might find value in the report, which does contain some useful information. Foreign-born inhabitants now constitute 12.2% of the state’s population, for instance, with the heaviest concentration in Northern Virginia. More than half the foreign-born population has become naturalized.
Virginia immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to hold a college degree, the report informs us. They have slightly higher incomes, and they are more likely to be self-employed or own a business.
“In sum, Virginia immigrants are relatively young, well educated, fluent in English, and more likely to participate in the workforce,” says the study. “This powerful combination reflects the substantial capacity for immigrants to contribute to the state’s economy.”
But average numbers obscure important differences between different categories of immigrants. Forty percent of Virginia immigrants are well educated (college or graduate degrees) and wind up working in professional and technology fields. But, according to CI’s data, 20% lack a high school degree, a much higher percentage than for the native-born population. In other words, we are looking at two very different groups — one highly educated and affluent (mostly legal) and one ill-educated and poor (mostly illegal).
I know of no respectable voices in Virginia who say we should clamp down on all immigrants. (There might be a tiny percentage of white nationalists who advance that argument, but their numbers are insignificant.) The controversy over immigration focuses on poor, ill-educated immigrants, mostly though not exclusively from Latin American countries, who compete with similarly poor, ill-educated native-born Americans. These immigrants (mostly illegal) drive down wages of unskilled occupations, and put a burden on educational and social services.
I’ve never heard anyone hint that there’s too darn many Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese or Koreans in Virginia. That’s because Asian-Americans quickly learn English, rapidly assimilate to mainstream norms, become educated, launch job-creating businesses, and place minimal stress on the welfare state. Their presence is indisputably a net benefit to society.
By contrast, the Commonwealth Institute concedes that there are “challenges” associated with between 275,000 and 300,000 unauthorized immigrants. Nearly one in five live below the poverty line, and 58% lack health insurance. When one calculates the impact of illegal immigrants on the wage levels of unskilled workers, on schools, on the welfare state, and on the criminal justice system, this sub-set does not look like a net benefit to American society.
The study contends that illegals make a positive contribution, contributing $250 million in state and local taxes. If provided a path to citizenship, they could generate an estimated $100 million more. To the Commonwealth Institute, the problem isn’t foreigners illegally entering the U.S., but the mean people who treat illegals as second-class citizens. Says the report: “Lack of access to health care and threats of deportation and discrimination all make unauthorized immigrants and their families less able to contribute to the communities in which they live.”
I don’t believe in demonizing illegal immigrants for the sin of wanting to build better lives in Virginia. I don’t bear them any animus. I think it is wrong to abuse or mistreat them. But I also believe that a sovereign state has the inherent right to choose who can enter the country and upon what terms and conditions they do so. Foreigners have no right to live in the United States. One can make an argument that the U.S. should expand opportunities for foreigners to enter the country legally, but only on the purely utilitarian grounds that their presence benefits the rest of us. Accordingly, I think we should give preferential treatment, as many other countries do, to those who can contribute to the national wealth and well being over those who cannot.
Having a rational conversation requires that we draw distinctions between immigrants on the basis of education, skills, wealth, age, ability to assimilate, and proclivity to become a burden on the state. It is difficult to have that conversation when we lump all “immigrants” together.