Understanding the value of immigrant labor | Editorial Columns

Understanding the value of immigrant labor | Editorial Columns


Last week in this space, Dr. Don Mathews began a series on the economic state of our rural neighbors and gave us some demographic characteristics of some of our surrounding counties. He wrote about population, unemployment, education, disability, labor force participation, income, and poverty. As we all anticipate hearing the rest of the story from Dr. Mathews, I will be careful not to steal his thunder.

But, I would like to add one statistic to last week’s list — foreign-born population.

According to the American Community Survey, in 2017:

• Glynn County was home to 4,632 foreign-born individuals, 5.5 percent of Glynn County’s total population.

• Camden County had a foreign-born population of 2,100, 4 percent of Camden’s total population.

• Wayne County had 878 foreign-born residents, 3 percent of its population.

• And foreign-born individuals made up less than 2 percent of the populations of each of Brantley and McIntosh Counties.

For Georgia and the U.S. as a whole, this statistic is larger. Nearly 10 percent of Georgia’s residents in 2017 were foreign-born, compared with 13.2 percent for the U.S.

These statistics use the Census Bureau’s definition of foreign-born, which refers to anyone who is not a U.S. citizen at birth. So, as best we can count, these numbers include naturalized U.S. citizens, long-term or temporary legal residents, refugees, and immigrants residing in the U.S. illegally.

These days, we find ourselves in the midst of a heated national debate not only on the future of immigration policy, but also on the future of many immigrants’ lives and families.

I wanted to cite the statistics above to help localize the story a bit. A significant number of immigrants live among us here in Southeast Georgia.

Not only do they live among us, but they also contribute to our economy. In fact, the foreign-born population in the U.S. has a higher labor-force participation rate and lower unemployment rate than the native-born population.

We were given a peek at the value of foreign-born workers to our local economy last year when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) arrested dozens of undocumented immigrants in Glynn County, causing a chain reaction of labor shortages throughout the area as other immigrants, documented or not, failed to report to work for fear of arrest.

Last time I wrote for this column, I wrote about a classroom experiment which demonstrated that trade — the free flow of goods and services — always creates value for all parties involved. This foundational economic principle applies not only to goods and services but also to labor.

Many Americans believe immigrants are bad for labor markets in the sense that they take jobs from native workers. Evidence suggests otherwise.

A 2013 study by economists Patricia Cortés and Jessica Pan found that when Hong Kong instituted a Foreign Domestic Worker (FDW) policy allowing more immigrants from Taiwan, labor force participation of native women increased significantly. They concluded that immigrant labor is often complementary to native labor rather than substitutionary.

In the U.S., Federal Reserve economists Hotchkiss and Quispe-Agnoli found similar results in a study focusing specifically on undocumented workers. They showed that a new undocumented worker in the U.S. job market is more likely to replace another undocumented worker than a documented one.

As we continue to engage in the national debate around immigration policy, it is important that we acknowledge the value of immigrant labor market contributions. Free trade always creates value, and immigration quotas and other restrictions threaten the limit that value creation in our labor markets.

Any policy changes that emerge from this debate will have real consequences for coastal Georgia.


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