By TOM GAWARKIEWICZ Special to the Press Herald
AUGUSTA — Historically, immigrants from Canada came to Maine seeking better job opportunities in the mills.
Now Canada is the country attracting immigrants, luring entrepreneurs and high-skill workers to enhance its economic competitiveness.
Canada recently unveiled a new startup visa program, which offers foreign entrepreneurs permanent resident status provided they meet certain investment criteria. Canada has also introduced a faster system for processing and naturalizing expert workers.
However, immigration continues to be controversial in the U.S. Some oppose immigration on ethnic, cultural or racial grounds, while others argue that foreigners are taking U.S. jobs that should go to workers born in the U.S.
Neither of these objections to immigration is justifiable. One is based on fear and prejudice, and the other is based on an incomplete understanding of how immigrants affect the U.S. economy. Immigration is ultimately an issue of human rights and economic prosperity.
The current immigration reform debate in Washington has significant implications for Maine, where population growth is now entirely dependent on immigration.
To fully address the issue of immigration and grow the economy, the U.S. should simplify the visa application process and pass legislation to offer undocumented immigrants already in the country a pathway to citizenship.
Streamlining the immigration process would help the economy.
Foreign-born entrepreneurs were responsible for 28 percent of all new U.S. business in 2011, far exceeding their 13 percent share of the total population. In 2007, immigrant-owned businesses employed 4.7 million American workers.
Programs to encourage foreign immigration, whether immigrants are coming here as employees, employers or investors, have been historically successful. A recent White House report estimates that the E5-B visa, which grants immigrants visas for investing in America, has generated almost $7 billion in capital since its enactment in 1990.
The U.S. in general has strong incentives to provide a naturalization process for illegal immigrants.
Prospects for needed improvements remain in limbo as Congress debates the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that passing this bill would decrease the federal deficit by $135 billion over the next 10 years, primarily due to the increased revenues from the larger tax base as more people gain citizenship.
Illegal immigrants are already paying state and local taxes. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that illegal immigrants in the U.S. paid $10.6 billion in state and local income, sales, property, and gasoline taxes. These non-federal tax receipts would increase by $2 billion if the proposed law were to pass.
Broadly, immigration reform can also help to improve living conditions for both native and immigrant workers.
Since illegal immigrants cannot be legally employed, employers often pay them wages that are below market levels, which can depress wages for all workers in an entire industry or region. This can also lead to dangerous or unhealthy labor environments for all.
Maine specifically can expect benefits from immigration reform.
Maine Center for Economic Policy research found in 2007 that Asians owned 1,143 businesses in the state, employing 2,543 Mainers, while representing less than 1 percent of Maine's population. The center found that sales from Latino-owned businesses in Maine generate well over $100 million.
Latinos have also helped Maine's aging problem. The state's population is currently the oldest in the nation, with a median age of 43.5. The median age of Latinos in Maine in 2007 was 26.9, easing some of the demographic challenges facing Maine employers.
Additionally, Maine's deaths exceeded births in 2012. Without immigration (domestic or foreign), Maine's population will begin to decline.
Comprehensive immigration reform would also provide a much needed boost to Maine's economy, which is still stagnant five years after the end of the Great Recession. Passing it would grow the state economy by $98 million and add roughly 1,486 new jobs in 2014.
Immigration does not steal prosperity away from America; it brings it. Productive and innovative immigrant workers and entrepreneurs help everyone in the U.S. To remain the world's largest, most vibrant economy, the U.S. must attract eager workers and critical thinkers.
Immigration has long been a cornerstone of America's strength; with thoughtful reform, it can continue to be just that.
Tom Gawarkiewicz is a Bowdoin Fellow working this summer at the Maine Center for Economic Policy in Augusta.