Despite the recent political rhetoric and anti-immigrant sentiments, the economic benefits of immigration are well-established in the empirical literature. A 2011 meta-analysis by economist Michael Clemens found that dropping all current immigration restrictions would result in a doubling of world GDP.
A more recent analysis corroborated these findings, concluding that lifting all migration restrictions would increase world output by 126%. In 2015, migrants made up 3.4% of the world population yet contributed about $6.7 trillion to global output—9.4% of world GDP. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that this is $3 trillion more than these migrants would have produced had they stayed in their origin countries. Even undocumented workers in the United States contribute about 3.6% of private-sector GDP annually—around $6 trillion dollars over a 10-year period. Granting these migrants legal status would increase their contribution to 4.8%. Even one of the most distinguished critics of immigration—George Borjas of Harvard University—finds that the economic gain of immigration for Americans is between $5 and $10 billion per year.
As more Americans become personally involved with immigrants, the less prejudiced toward immigrants they become.
Yet, many rich country natives continue to worry that an overabundance of immigrants will make things worse. Some accuse immigrants of stealing native jobs, depressing native wages, undermining native culture and institutions, bloating the welfare state, and/or being criminals and terrorists. The vast majority of empirical studies, however, contradicts these arguments. Several large literature reviews — including two from the National Academy of Sciences and one from Oxford University— find that the long-term effects of immigration on jobs, wages and the fiscal budget tend to be neutral to slightly positive. Immigrants also assimilate rather well into their host countries and even appear to boost the economic freedom of their institutions.
Unfortunately, ignorance in regards to the benefits of immigration is widespread. Multiple studies have shown that political ignorance is rampant among average voters, and this holds true when it comes to immigration. As legal scholar Ilya Somin explains, “Immigration restriction…is one that has long-standing associations with political ignorance. In both the United States and Europe, survey data suggest that it is strongly correlated with overestimation of the proportion of immigrants in the population, lack of sophistication in making judgments about the economic costs and beneﬁts of immigration, and general xenophobic attitudes toward foreigners. By contrast, studies show that there is little correlation between opposition to immigration and exposure to labor market competition from recent immigrants” (Somin, 2016, pg. 23).
A recent NBER working paper surveyed more than 22,000 natives in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the UK, and the US. Confirming Somin’s findings, the average native overestimated the proportion of immigrants in the population, the share of immigrants coming from “problematic” regions, the share of Muslim immigrants, the share of non-Christian immigrants, and the percentage of immigrants living below the poverty line. Natives who perceived immigrants as poor and uneducated also viewed them as a fiscal burden, decreasing their support for redistribution. The researchers also found that those who personally knew an immigrant were less negatively biased in their perceptions. One pair of economists found that those voting to leave the European Union in the Brexit referendum, who were motivated largely by a desire to restrict immigration, “were overwhelmingly more likely to live in areas with very low levels of migration.” Similarly, voters who supported Donald Trump during the US election were more likely to oppose liberalizing immigration laws (even compared to other Republicans), but least likely to live in racially diverse neighborhoods. In short, both political ignorance and lack of interaction with foreigners tend to inﬂame anti-immigration sentiments.
Perhaps surprising given our heated political climate, the number of Americans in favor of increased immigration has steadily risen from 6% in the early 1990s to 28% in 2018. Those wanting to decrease immigration has dropped from 65% in 1993 to 29% in 2018. This correlates with shifting attitudes toward immigrants during the same period of time: only 31% of Americans believed immigrants strengthened the country in 1994. By 2017, that percentage had risen to 65, with significant increases for both Democrats and Republicans. This change in attitude is likely due (in part) to the substantial growth of immigrants in the United States over the last few decades. In 1990, immigrants made up nearly 8% of the population. By 2016, that percentage had increased to 13.5. As more Americans become personally involved with immigrants, the less prejudiced toward immigrants they become.
It is important to keep these positive trends in mind while we navigate today’s political polarization. But in order to avoid undermining the progress we have made as a nation, we must keep the facts at the center of immigration policy. Immigrants are not threats. They are potential partners, lenders, investors, innovators, employers, employees, co-workers, and customers. More than that, though, they are potential neighbors, friends, and family. Our immigration policy should reflect this reality.
Walker Wright is an independent writer and researcher. His academic writing has appeared in SquareTwo, BYU Studies Quarterly, Dialogue, and Graziadio Business Review.
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