THE BLOG

Attracting Immigrants Grows Our Economy

06/09/2015 02:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

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The Bush Insititue hosted a naturalization ceremony in 2013 honoring twenty new citizens from twelve countries. Photo by Grant Miller

By Margaret Spellings and Javier Palomarez

We can all be glad that unemployment recently fell to 5.4 percent. But the reality is that consistent economic growth remains elusive.

Fortunately, the country has an untapped source of economic growth potential, and that is the many creative, industrious and motivated immigrants in our country. The United States has historically remained one of the world's top economies in large part because it has been able to attract diverse people from around the globe, reaping the benefits of their talent and hard work.

But, too often in today's political climate, immigration is cast as a negative, with issues like border security and unauthorized immigration dominating the news cycle. While we acknowledge the importance of those issues, they are only a part of the broader immigration question. After all, our immigrant population is one of the most promising solutions for our country's tepid economic growth.

Here's why:

First, immigrants are remarkably good at starting new businesses.

Business start-ups are essential for economic growth. By turning good ideas into products ready for the marketplace, entrepreneurs drive the economy forward. For example, in 2012, immigrant-founded major engineering and technology firms generated more than $63 billion in sales and employed more than 500,000 workers.

The Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity shows that immigrants start new businesses at almost twice the rate of native-born Americans. In 2013, on average, 250 out of every 100,000 native-born Americans became new business owners each month. Immigrants started businesses at nearly double that rate. In fact, in every year since the Kauffman Index was started in 1996, immigrants have greatly outpaced native-born Americans in the rate of new startups.

Overall, approximately 20 percent of small businesses in the U.S. are immigrant-owned and these enterprises employ one out of every 10 American workers.

Second, immigrants expand America's labor force.

The U.S. Census Bureau shows that in 2013 immigrants accounted for 13 percent of the total U.S. population, but more than 16 percent of the labor force. And more than 61 percent of immigrants over the age of 16 were employed in 2013, a higher proportion than that of native-born Americans.

Even more remarkable is the role immigrants will play in expanding the future workforce. The Pew Research Center projects that between 2012 and 2050, immigrants and their U.S.-born children will combine to account for 93 percent of the total growth of America's working age population. With America's workforce aging and Baby Boomers approaching retirement, an influx of immigrants should be welcomed, particularly since many come to the United States during their prime working years.

Third, immigrants are a major source of the new ideas and patents that boost productivity.

Immigrants aid economic growth by increasing productivity through innovation. In economic terms, boosting productivity means getting more output from each input.

Quantifying innovation within an economy can be difficult, but one of the most common methods is to examine patent data. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reports immigrants or other foreigners are responsible for more than 50 percent of the patents its office grants.

Among the 10 U.S. universities that received the most patents in 2011, 76 percent of all such patent awards had at least one immigrant listed as an inventor on the patent application. And among college graduates, immigrants are likelier than their native-born counterparts to have ever published a book, journal article, or conference paper.

Admittedly, the immigration debate is highly complex, with many different sides to consider. Often, though, only the dark side of the issue captures headlines. But by starting new businesses, expanding the workforce, and driving innovation, immigrants grow our nation's economy and employ untold Americans in the process.

This is the other side of the story, one that the George W. Bush Institute and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce are pleased to tell in their new publication: America's Advantage: A Handbook on Immigration and Economic Growth. This book tells how immigration buoys economic growth.

We need to get immigration reform right for our country's prosperity. We need bipartisan action that is rooted in the belief that immigration reform is an economic imperative and crucial for the continued well-being of our nation's economy. We need polices in place to enable immigrants to help themselves. And, just as important, we need polices in place to enable immigrants to help America. We are, after all, a land of immigrants.

Margaret Spellings is President of the George W. Bush Presidential Center and Javier Palomarez is President and CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.