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Seven Surprising Ways Immigration Helps Build a Stronger America

01/23/2013 04:35 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2013

President Obama has pledged to make immigration reform one of his top legislative priorities in 2013. He highlighted this commitment again in his inaugural address on Monday. Republicans are also reevaluating their stance on immigration. Here are seven frequently overlooked ways that immigration contributes to life in the United States:

1. Immigration fuels our economy. As an article from Newsweek points out, many Americans wrongly believe that immigration hurts the economy. There is consensus among many leading economists that immigration actually gives economies a net boost. In fact, a report from the Migration Policy Institute indicates that "immigration unambiguously improves employment, productivity, and income," especially when an economy is growing. And, contrary to popular belief, immigrants do not reduce native employment rates overall.

2. Immigration creates jobs. Much of the anti-immigration debate revolves around the idea that immigration gives society more people to take care of. Rarely do people realize that quite the opposite is true -- that immigrants create new populations of people who buy things. In the heavily commercialized country that is the United States, new arrivals need to buy food, rent an apartment, and spend money in their local economies in order to survive. This, in turn, makes small businesses grow, for which they often need to hire more people to serve their newfound customers. Indeed, Mexican immigrants actually make up 4 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product.

3. Immigration helps us retain the best global talent. President Obama alluded to the need for America to be able to retain more international students and engineers. The software industry, struggling to find enough competent Americans to fill all the jobs available, has been lobbying heavily for immigration reform. These businesses simply cannot locate enough high-quality engineers to remain competitive in a globalized era. In the dynamic and often cutthroat business world, companies cannot afford to sit back and hope that the American education system will eventually catch up. Either American companies must recruit the best talent now, or their competitors in other countries will have a clear and timely advantage.

4. Immigration makes us less globally isolated. Unlike people living in most European countries, Americans rarely travel outside of their homeland -- only 30% have passports. If you include all of the transcontinental countries, there are 50 internationally recognized sovereign states in Europe. By comparison, many Americans do actually travel within the 50 states that comprise the U.S., but remain largely in a familiar cultural environment even when the landscape changes. In other words, most Americans' only contact with people from other countries actually takes place right in their home country. The ability to demonstrate understanding and respect for diverse cultural backgrounds is a vital skill in today's globalized world. Giving Americans more opportunities to meet people from other countries right here at home helps connect our citizenry to the broader world.

5. Immigration enhances our multilingualism. America is already rich in natural language resources, with approximately one out of every five people who live here speaking a language other than English at home. With the exception of some native-born populations, such as those who speak Native American languages or use American Sign Language, the majority of that linguistic diversity is owed to immigrants who brought their languages here, just like English speakers originally did. We lag behind many countries when it comes to teaching children other languages in our educational system. Yet, our own government -- including the Department of Defense and the State Department -- rely heavily on skilled multilingual individuals in order to accomplish critical work, such as translating information for intelligence purposes and providing language training to diplomats who will serve overseas. The bulk of our nation's language capacity is thanks to its immigrants.

6. Immigration opens us up to ideas from elsewhere. Along with new people and new languages come new ideas. Immigrants bring with them practices and cultural knowledge from their homelands, so that these ideas can be incorporated into the new country they call home. Cutting ourselves off from the world is generally a dangerous thing. Just look at North Korea, which also happens to be the only country that is truly monolingual, owing in great part to this isolation. Diversity can strengthen a population, not just in terms of demographics, but in terms of ideas that can help the American Dream to continue evolving with the times.

7. Immigration shapes how the world views America. The foreign-born population in the United States is currently made up of 37 million people, or about 12 percent of the total U.S. population. This means we have 37 million voices who frequently report back to people in other countries about life in the United States. These immigrants often trigger international tourism when their friends and families come to visit, spending money in our economy and helping America obtain a piece of the U.S. $2 trillion global travel and tourism industry, which is reportedly double the size of automotive manufacturing worldwide. Each of those tourists takes back with them not only souvenirs and photos, but individual experiences that help form collective opinions overseas of what America is like and why it matters in the world.

As the world waits for details on what exactly "comprehensive immigration reform" will mean, let us remember that immigration is what brought the vast majority of Americans to this land in the first place. It seems silly to debate whether immigration is a good thing or not when it's such an integral part of the very foundation the country was built on. Instead, it's time for America to focus on how our immigration policies can be made more efficient, enabling the United States to take better advantage of all the benefits immigration currently offers our society, and will no doubt continue to do so.