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Rinku Sen

Rinku Sen

Posted April 15, 2009 | 12:59 PM (EST)

Stimulus Package: Immigrants!


Last week, the New York Times reported that President Obama intends to push immigration reform, welcome news to the millions of undocumented people who need legalization in that package. Cecilia Muñoz, the Adminstration's Director of Inter Governmental Affairs, is managing this project for the White House. Muñoz was known as a dogged advocate while she was VP of Policy at the National Council of La Raza, and her experience of the five-year immigration debate that ended with no change in 2007 is some of the most moving stuff in my book, The Accidental American.

The pushback will be all focused on the economy, as conservatives and liberals alike argue that we cannot have more permanent residents while so many Americans are unemployed. This line of thinking would make sense if the economy was a zero sum game, with no flexibility or room for growth. In that case, we could protect jobs for current residents by preventing immigrants from taking them.

But economies and immigration don't work that way. Economies grow and shrink according to a number of factors, and immigrants, whether they are apple pickers or scientists, help U.S. economies grow. Often when the immigrant is gone, so is the job, not to mention the tax revenue. This report by the William C. Velasquez Institute at UCLA makes the case that legalizing millions of undocumented people is the most effective stimulus plan we've got. Legalization would create $4.5 to $5.4 billion in net tax revenue alone, not to mention the nearly million new jobs and $30-36 billion in personal wealth it could generate. Those are jobs that largely go to native-born Americans.

My own father is a great example. He came to the states as a metallurgical engineer. Since the industrial economy shrank steadily from his arrival in 1971 to 1980, he started a small business in light construction. He employed dozens of people, none of them immigrants. When he died, my mother ran the business and kept those people. When she retired, a long-term employee bought the business and still owns it five years later. My dad didn't steal a business from anyone - it didn't exist before him. He didn't steal a loan - the bank can, and is happy to, make more loans. He expanded the economy and created opportunity for native-born workers with low and medium skill levels.

You don't have to be an engineer to do this. The economist James Holt estimates that each farmworker creates an average of 3 new jobs in the surrounding area. Apples have to be packaged, shipped and sold, all jobs that are often done by native-born Americans.

Pushing immigration reform to the top of the list could be Obama's boldest economic move yet. During times of economic crisis, the knee jerk reaction is to close our doors and scapegoat. It's counter-intuitive, but nonetheless true, that immigrants could pull us out of the trenches more swiftly than we thought possible. As Cecilia Muñoz learned before she went to the White House, however, the conservative noise on immigration is producing a racial, as well as economic, story, and the racial division may scuttle the economic benefit.