A Quick Refresher on Legal Immigration—and Its Impact on the U.S. Economy

February 25, 2020

According to White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, the United States is “desperate” for more immigrants—those who come here legally, that is. In Mulvaney’s words: “We are desperate—desperate—for more people. We are running out of people to fuel the economic growth that we’ve had in our nation over the last four years. We need more immigrants.”

The one caveat? That they come here in a “legal fashion.”

Mulvaney’s on to something. We do need to welcome more immigrants to come here through the proper channels. Economic growth is dependent on it.

In fact, the United States would not be the United States, as we know it, without the contributions of legal immigrants. From starting new businesses to working late hours, those immigrants are an integral component of the American workplace. And, by extension, legal immigration is an integral component of the U.S. economy.

Let’s go through the numbers. America is home to over 44 million immigrants—more than any other country in the world. That’s roughly equivalent to the entire population of Argentina or Ukraine. In fact, U.S. immigration accounts for about one-fifth of the world’s migrants in any given year.

This begs the question: How many immigrants are here legally?

Short answer: An overwhelming majority. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of immigrants in the country are legal immigrants. That means tens of millions of people.

While much of today’s political discourse focuses on “illegal immigration” and talking points like “border security” (and, often, for good reason), it is simply shortsighted to assume that most immigrants are here illegally and need to be deported. Most people who come to our shores follow the rules, wait in line, and become law-abiding citizens—wherever they happen to migrate.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but the rule is this: America’s immigrant experience is by and large a positive one.

This is especially true in economic terms. Between 1990 and 2014, U.S. immigrants have contributed about 15 percent of the country’s total economic growth. Part of the reason is that immigrants are generally of working-age (between ages 16 and 64), coming here to find jobs and earn a living. Over the past two decades, foreign-born people have accounted for roughly half of the U.S. labor force’s growth.

America’s job creators are increasingly reliant on the immigrant workforce to fill talent gaps. Nearly three-quarters of employers report that the ability to obtain work visas in a timely, predictable, and flexible way is critical to their business goals.

What is more, immigrants aren’t just working nine-to-five jobs; they are disproportionately represented among the entrepreneurial class. From 1995 to 2005, immigrant entrepreneurs and their children founded or co-founded more than 25 percent of America’s technology and engineering companies—from Google to Yahoo! Immigrants are more likely than their non-immigrant counterparts to secure a patent and launch a start-up.

In this way (among others), immigrants and non-immigrants work together to power the U.S. economy into the future. Their interests are not necessarily at odds.

Take Jerry Yang, a Taiwanese immigrant who co-founded Yahoo alongside American businessman David Filo. Their idea created thousands and thousands of good-paying jobs—jobs for immigrants and non-immigrants alike. But those jobs never would have existed without Yang. If he had never come to the United States, he wouldn’t have made thousands of Americans better off.

That’s just one example—one tiny drop in a vast ocean of immigrant contributions. I’m proud to be an immigrant myself, doing my own small part to make American society a better place. My parents brought me here as a child from former Yugoslavia, with few tangible resources but an eagerness to live the American Dream. Fast forward to today, and they live it every single day. America was kind to us, just as it has been for millions of other immigrants.

That is a tradition to cherish. America’s immigrant experience is worth celebrating. The more legal immigrants we welcome here, the better off our country will be.

As Mick Mulvaney said, immigrants can indeed “fuel economic growth.” But, in truth, they contribute much more—immigrants make America, well, America.

Luka Ladan is the President and CEO of Zenica Public Relations and a Catalyst Policy Fellow. Prior to founding Zenica, Ladan served as Communications Director at a leading public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
Catalyst articles by Luka Ladan