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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
We all know that immigration — legal and unauthorized — has been a hot-button topic for a while now. This is the case even before President Obama has even seriously tackled the question of immigration reform. One of the key points of contention has been whether immigrants contribute more to American society than they receive in social services.
In recent weeks, a few new studies try to shed some more light on this question and in the process, inject a little objectivity and data into an otherwise emotionally-charged debate. The first report comes from the non-partisan Fiscal Policy Institute and as described at the Immigration Impacts blog at the Immigration Policy Center, the economic contributions of immigrants constitute a net benefit for their communities:
The report studies the 25 largest metro areas (by population) which produce nearly one half of the total gross domestic product of the country. It shows that in the country’s main metropolises, the share of the immigrant population stacks up neatly against their share of economic output. For example, immigrants are responsible for 20% of economic output and make up 20% of the population in these 25 metropolitan areas. In other words, immigrants pull their own weight.
From the report: . . . “From the Pittsburgh metro area, where immigrants make up 3 percent of the population and 4 percent of economic output, to the Miami metro area, where immigrants represent 37 percent of all residents and 38 percent of economic out¬put, immigrants are playing a consistently proportionate role in local economies.”
The overall impact of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy is small. According to [Economics Professor Gordon Hanson, the report’s author], “Illegal immigration produces a tiny net gain to the U.S. economy after subtracting U.S.-born workers’ losses from U.S. employers’ gains. And if we account for the small fiscal burden that unauthorized immigrants impose, the overall economic benefit is close enough to zero to be essentially a wash.”
Enforcement against illegal immigration is expensive. The U.S. spends approximately $15 billion annually enforcing immigration laws. A simple cost-benefit analysis indicates that the high level of spending on enforcement is not justified. . . .
MPI policy analyst Marc Rosenblum and Jeanne Butterfield of the National Immigration Forum largely agreed with Hanson, but took the argument a step further, making a strong case for legalization . . . Rosenblum pointed out that the net fiscal impact of illegal immigrants improves over time—immigrants are not only workers, but consumers, entrepreneurs, and investors, and their contributions improve over time.
This particular report basically confirms earlier research that show that legal immigrants constitute a notable net gain for American society and its economy and that taken together, unauthorized immigrants also contribute more both in the short term (through paying sales taxes, income taxes, overall purchasing power, and entrepreneurial activities) and long term (by becoming productive citizens and not having to rely on public assistance).
Finally, at New America Media, a third article on the contributions of immigrants points out that as the laws currently exist, legal immigrants are prohibited from using Medicaid (the federal healthcare program for low-income Americans), even though they pay federal taxes that help to fund such programs and that in essence, recent legal immigrants are subsidizing healthcare for everyone else:
Currently, legal immigrants, who work and pay taxes that contribute to our health care system will continue to be ineligible to receive federally-funded Medicaid services for five years. In this case, we are not talking about those who make at least 133 percent of federal poverty level and could access affordability credits like everyone else for purchasing insurance in the exchange. We are talking about immigrants with the lowest incomes. It is unreasonable and saddening that under the current health reform proposals, the people who really need it will not get it.
I am under no delusions that these reports and data will change the mind of hard-core or extremist opponents of immigration (legal and unauthorized) anytime soon. Rather, for those who are willing to consider valid, reliable, and nonpartisan research, these studies are useful in wading through some of the political ideology and seeing what the actual numbers say.
With that in mind, the time for comprehensive immigration reform has come. By comprehensive, it means that we need to focus on more than just reinforcing our border with Mexico. Instead, it also means overhauling our immigration detention system, which, a new bipartisan report finds, has a long and documented history of bureaucratic lapses, with the detainees routinely denied basic rights such as being told why they are being held.
It also means providing unauthorized citizens already in country with a path toward eventual citizenship and access to opportunities to achieve social and economic mobility, such as the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act (currently being debated in Congress) that would allow young immigrants without legal status who demonstrate “good moral character” to apply for citizenship.
Both a revelation and a call-to-action, Immigrant, Inc. explores the uncommon skill and drive of America’s new immigrants and their knack for innovation and entrepreneurship. From the techies who created icons of the new economy — Intel, Google, eBay and Sun Microsystems — to the young engineers tinkering with solar power and next-generation car batteries, immigrants have proven themselves to be America’s competitive advantage . . . [and] will create the American jobs of the future — if we let them.
That last part seems to be the key — immigrants have much to contribute to American society and our economy, if only we let them do so, rather than trying to get rid of them.
In a recent post titled “The Degrees of Immigrant Bashing,” I described various ways in which the recession has led to increased anti-immigrant hostility, leading to blatantly offensive comments from public officials, acts of violence and hate crimes, and misguided federal regulations. As a follow up, blogger Michelle Waslin at Immigration Impact writes that, perhaps ironically, the recession seems to have resulted in fewer anti-immigrant proposals and legislation being passed this year at the local and state levels:
According to the Progressive States Network (PSN), budget deficits have meant that states are unwilling to pass legislation with a cost attached. Immigration is less of a wedge issue in 2009—that is, politicians seem less willing to push anti-immigrant platforms because candidates who did so in the 2008 elections lost.
PSN also reports that anti-immigrant legislators have been marginalized in 2009. Bills introduced by Texas State Rep. Leo Berman, a notorious anti-immigrant voice, got no traction, even from within his own party. No votes were taken on any of his 9 anti-immigrant bills. In Arizona, State Senator Russell Pearce has had little success with his anti-immigrant agenda this year. An Arizona Republic editorial criticized Pearce for devoting time and energy to immigrant-bashing instead of doing the real work that needs to be done on the state budget. Even Prince William County, Virginia Executive Corey Stewart—well known for his anti-immigrant rhetoric—has backed down, acknowledging that problems other than immigration deserve more attention. . . .
It is clear that vehement anti-immigrant legislation is not as fashionable as in past years. These measures have proven to be too expensive and ineffective, Americans care more about real solutions than scapegoating and rhetoric, and anti-immigrant politicians have not been successful on election day.
It’s encouraging to see that most politicians (apparently on both sides of the ideological divide) recognize that indeed, there are many more important issues these days than demonizing and dehumanizing immigrants, legal and undocumented. I also believe that many of them also understand that in this current recession, immigrants — again legal or undocumented — can make significant contributions to the American economy if given the chance.
That is, while many immigrants are disproportionately affected by these tough economic times, if they’re allowed to stay in the U.S., many are more than willing spend their income to help support local businesses, pay federal income and social security taxes, and state sales and gas taxes, to name just a few examples. This is especially true in immigrant-heavy states and cities such as California and Texas, that are being hit especially hard during the recession.
In other words, at a time when our country is struggling, we need everybody to pitch in and help out, regardless of their race, ethnicity, skin color, or immigrant status.
If you’re keeping track, Sec. Locke is the third Asian American in President Obama’s cabinet, following Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Three Asian American cabinet secretaries is unprecedented in American history and needless to say, I join many others in expressing my elation and gratitude at President Obama’s picks for his cabinet.
For those who haven’t heard of Sec. Locke before, as Governor of Washington between 1997-2005, he was the first Chinese American governor in American history and the first Asian American governor of a mainland state. He was seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party and a possible Vice Presidential candidate. However, he declined to run for Governor after his second term and returned to private life thereafter.
As illustrated in PBS’s excellent 2005 documentary Searching for Asian America, Sec. Locke is known for being very intelligent and detail-oriented and as such, in many ways personifies some common cultural assumptions about Asian Americans. That’s not to say it’s good or bad, just to say that he represents a “safe choice” for President Obama in that way and was an attractive option since Obama’s first two nominees for the position both dropped out.
But I think another reason that President Obama chose Gary Locke is because, as also pointed out in the PBS documentary, Sec. Locke has many ties to the land of his ancestors, China. Therefore, it’s probably safe to assume that President Obama felt those personal and professional ties to China would come in handy as our nation and its economy tries to navigate through this recession and the 21st century global economy in general, one in which China will play a major role.
As such, Sec. Locke is the latest example of a theme that I’ve been writing about for some time — how Asian Americans are forging a new identity for themselves, one in which our “foreignness” or more specifically our transnational cultural ties and networks back to Asia, are seen as assets, rather than liabilities as we assert our identities as legitimate Americans in the 21st century.
In other words, in this era where American society is inevitably becoming more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse and where economic issues are likely to be a paramount concern for Americans individually and American society institutionally, we as Asian Americans now have the opportunity to make a significant contribution to American society. In the process of doing so, we can also help to reshape the image and definition of what it means to be an “American.”
This expanded definition of being an American includes not just emotional attachment and patriotic loyalty to an American identity, but also involves helping to achieve greater economic prosperity for American society. As we’re seeing right now, economic issues have emerged as significant factors and challenges to American society and its overall sense of national identity.
Within this contexts, Asian American are poised to make significant contributions to rebuilding the American economy and helping it become more competitive in the 21st century. These opportunities can involve many different examples. First, we know that at the aggregate level, Asian American households have the highest median income of all the major racial/ethnic groups.
Even when it comes to personal/per capita level, as data is beginning to show, US-born Asian American have matched or even exceeded the income level of Whites. Of course, we have to be careful and recognize that not all Asian Americans are economically successful, but overall, I think our community is doing well.
There was also the recent commentary in the NY Times which suggested, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that one way to stimulate the economy is to let in more Asian immigrants, who would buy up all he sub-prime homes, work 14 hour days to do it, improve the national savings rate, and start up businesses that will employ American workers.
More realistically, we’ve already seen examples of Asian enclaves proliferating around the country — in both urban and increasingly suburban areas — that have resulted in these areas becoming revitalized, with new businesses, jobs, homes, and other amenities being created.
The point is, the economic contributions of Asian Americans to the American economy is undeniable.
The second way that Asian American can contribute to a new and stronger American society relates more to the cultural level. As I mentioned earlier, it is clear that the world in general and American society in particular is becoming more diverse, globalized, and transnational. With that in mind, Asian Americans occupy a very central role in this evolving process.
As the U.S. seeks to maintain its influence around the world, it has no other choice but to embrace these global trends and to build more mutually-respectful connections with countries around the world, particular in Asia. In fact, Hillary Clinton has been doing just that as Secretary of State — in February she made high-profile visits to Japan, South Korea, China, and Indonesia.
So with this mind, Asian Americans can serve as a valuable facilitators in these connections because on the individual, community, and institutional levels, we still have strong ties and networks to Asian countries. This can take many different forms — maintaining relationships with friends and family and sending remittances back there, or using our bicultural skills and resources to do business back in Asia, or bringing our educational expertise to work on issues and projects focused on environmental sustainability, social equality, or human rights.
In the case of Secretary Locke, I think he represents this new form of Asian American identity — a “real” American of Asian ancestry but whose Asian ancestry can be a significant asset and advantage in terms of making significant contributions to strengthening our country, our economy, and our society.
Many Asian Americans (and for that matter, Americans from all kinds of backgrounds) are in a similar situation and as such, also have the same opportunity to become leaders in their community and in our society in the 21st century.
In these tough economic times, Americans from all kinds of backgrounds are hurting financially. There seems to be depression reports in the news almost every day. Reports in the media have also focused a lot of attention on layoffs at large corporations, many of whom are shedding employees by the thousands. With that in mind, it may lead many of us to presume that middle class Whites are getting hit the hardest in this recession.
Certainly, many middle class Whites and their families are feeling the brunt of the recession and many find themselves struggling to make ends meet for the first time in their lives. However, as MSNBC reports, the data shows that on the aggregate level, it’s actually Blacks and Latinos that are being hit the hardest by the current recession:
Last hired, first fired: This generations-old cliche rings bitterly true for millions of Latinos and blacks who are losing jobs at a faster rate than the general population during this punishing recession. Much of the disparity is due to a concentration of Latinos and blacks in construction, blue-collar or service-industry jobs that have been decimated by the economic meltdown. . . .
Since the recession began in December 2007, Latino unemployment has risen 4.7 percentage points, to 10.9%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Black unemployment has risen 4.5 points, to 13.4%. White unemployment has risen 2.9 points, to 7.3%. . . .
William Darity, a Duke University professor, said that “blacks and Latinos are relative latecomers to the professional world … so they are necessarily the most vulnerable.” . . .
“Not saying that it’s racism,” [an executive search consultant] said, “but if a manager or a senior executive is looking at a slate of individuals and has to let one of them go, chances are he or she will not let the person go that they spend a lot of time with at the country club or similar places.”
My point is not to play the “Oppression Olympics” and to argue that this group is much better off than another group, or one group is more oppressed than another. Instead, I would like to place these findings in a larger sociological context.
Many Americans feel that our society, while still not a perfect meritocracy, offers Americans from all backgrounds the best opportunities for success and achieving the American dream than at any time in our history — that the playing field is more level and equal now than it’s ever been.
I would agree that the opportunities for socioeconomic success are the most equal that they’ve ever been in American history. But that does not mean that everybody is on an equal playing field. Instead, what this MSNBC article and other sociological studies have shown is that Blacks and Latinos continue to experience particular institutional disadvantages in their efforts to achieve economic equality with Whites.
Specifically, as the article points out, Blacks and Latinos tend to be disproportionately located in service and manual labor industries. Beyond the fact that these industries tend to pay lower wages in general, they are also highly vulnerable in times of economic recession and we’re seeing this play out right now. As such, Blacks and Latinos experience their first disadvantage.
Their second disadvantage is that even for Blacks and Latinos who have professional occupations that normally are well-paying, again as the article points out, they are relative newcomers to such occupations and as such, when layoffs come, they are more likely to lose their jobs due to the “last hired, first fired” principle.
The third point of disadvantage is that due to the legacy of systematic discrimination in the past, Blacks and Latinos have been unable to accumulate the same level of family wealth compared to Whites. This is even despite the fact that while the income gap between Whites and Blacks and Latinos has declined, the wealth gap has actually increased in the past several decades.
This wealth gap is important because it provides a cushion or barrier to soften loss of employment and other financial difficulties. Therefore, because Blacks and Latinos have less accumulated wealth than Whites, they have a much smaller cushion to fall back on and therefore, are more susceptible to financial catastrophes.
Ultimately, these institutional disadvantages play a large part in why Blacks and Latinos seem to struggle more than Whites or Asian Americans when it comes to achieving economic success. They may be well-educated, motivated, and hard-working, but they also have to overcome more structural inequalities and barriers that make them more financially vulnerable in times of recession.
Most of the news these days is on the economy — the recent financial institution crisis and how it will affect the presidential elections and American society going forward. But as an example of interconnections between social issues, as CBS News reports, the number of immigrants coming into the U.S. (both legal and unauthorized), significantly declined in the past year, with the economy being a big reason:
The wave of immigrants entering the United States slowed dramatically last year as the economy faltered and the government stepped up enforcement of immigration laws. The nation added about a half million immigrants in 2007, down from more than 1.8 million the year before. . . .
The Census Bureau’s’ estimates for immigrants include those in the country legally and illegally because the agency does not ask about legal status. . . .
One other obstacle could be the 69 percent increase last summer in citizenship fees, about 281,000 immigrants applied to become U.S. citizens in the first half of 2008 – less than half the number of applicants in the same period last year. . . .
Much of the nation experienced a housing boom in the first half of the decade, providing jobs that attracted immigrants. The housing bubble burst last year, sending housing markets tumbling and contributing to a slumping economy that some economists believe is in recession.
It should not come as a surprise that with the economy slumping that there are fewer economic opportunities for immigrants (both legal and unauthorized), so that the numbers of immigrants entering the U.S. has declined significantly in the past year.
Of course, the political controversy over unauthorized immigration and high-profile efforts to round up and deport undocumented workers have also contributed to a less-hospitable climate in general. Critics of unauthorized immigration are undoubtedly rejoicing at these numbers, but as sociologists have tried to point out, these issue exist in a larger context of institutional and historical factors that require a longer-range focus if we want true and fair immigration reform.
State and local governments incur costs for providing services to unauthorized immigrants and have limited options for avoiding or minimizing those costs.
The amount that state and local governments spend on services for unauthorized immigrants represents a small percentage of the total amount spent by those governments to provide such services to residents in their jurisdictions.
The tax revenues that unauthorized immigrants generate for state and local governments do not offset the total cost of services provided to those immigrants.
Federal aid programs offer resources to state and local governments that provide services to unauthorized immigrants, but those funds do not fully cover the costs incurred by those governments.
So in other words, on a national level, unauthorized immigration constitutes a slight positive benefit for the American economy but on the state and local governments have to bear a disproportionate share of the financial costs, so at the state and local levels, unauthorized immigration constitutes a slight net loss on their budgets.
That is also a big reason why opposition to unauthorized immigration is so vehement — people situate themselves at the local setting, within their own city, town, or neighborhood — not at the national level. So they mainly see what is immediately around them, rather than taking a national-level perspective.
In that sense, it’s easy to see why people are opposed to the costs of unauthorized immigration that their city or state must bear, rather than recognizing the net benefit at the national level.
As sociologists have also pointed out, part of the solution needs to include the federal government sharing more of those net benefits with the state and local levels, to offset the disproportionate burden of costs that states and cities have to bear. Unfortunately, in today’s financial climate, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.
Update: As more evidence that unauthorized immigration to the U.S. is slowing down, last week, the Pew Research Group reported that for the first time in about a decade, between 2005 and 2008, the number of unauthorized immigrations was lower than the number of legal immigrants. Secondly, they also estimated that the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. has fallen from about 12.4 million last year to about 11.9 million this year.
For some time now, I’ve written about how, on the international stage, countries such as China and India are emerging as economic, political, and cultural superpowers in the 21st century and domestically, how American society is becoming more and more diverse and globalized as a result. So what does the future hold for the U.S. as these trends become more institutionalized?
That’s the question that CBS News asks in a very interesting article entitled “Coming Soon: A Post-American World:
With The Rise Of China And Other Economies, The ‘Golden Age’ Of American Influence May Be Coming To An End.” Some excerpts:
“We can model the economy and show that by 2035, it will be as big, if not bigger than the United States’ economy will be at that time, and by the middle of the century it will be twice the size of the U.S. economy at that time,” [China expert Albert] Keidel said. . . .
In case you missed that – within the next 50 years China’s economy will double the size of the United States’ economy. Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, said, “What’s happening right now is, the world is moving beyond America. The future is, in many ways, being shaped in distant places by foreign people.” . . .
“That’s a big shift from a world in which America was at the center economically, financially, culturally, militarily, politically, to a world in which there are more centers and many forces, from India to China to Brazil to South Africa that have to be taken into account,” Zakaria said. . . .
“This is not happening because America is failing or declining,” Zakaria said. “It’s happening because the rest are rising, and it’s happening because the natives have gotten good at capitalism.”
The article goes on to discuss what the U.S. can do to retain its economic and political superiority in the face of these momentous changes:
[Alan Wolff, former U.S. trade negotiator:] “We need to change our tax policies, change our immigration policy. We made the U.S. a magnet, an attractive place for the best and the brightest in the world, and we frustrate that by saying, ‘You get a Ph.D. here and that doesn’t matter. Right now, we’re throwing you out.’ That’s very self-destructive behavior.”
“We save too little, we consume too much, we borrow too much from the rest of the world, we use energy in a profligate and wasteful fashion,” said Zakaria.
So is the decline of the American economic empire inevitable? That’s a very complicated question and one that I will continue to explore in this blog, but for now, I would love to hear from you, my readers, on what you think the future holds for the U.S. in terms of keeping its status as the most powerful nation in the world.
Feel free to add your comments and let me know what you think.