Steve and Cokie Roberts: US economy needs immigrants

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 1, 2019

By Steve and Cokie Roberts

One of the most persistent and pernicious myths in American politics is that immigrants should be excluded because they “steal” jobs from native-born Americans.

President Donald Trump has often embraced that falsehood, as he did during a campaign appearance in Phoenix: “They’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.”

He could not be more wrong. Immigrants are not killing America, they’re filling America — with enormous energy and ingenuity. That’s why Trump’s accelerating campaign to reduce the influx of foreigners, both legal and illegal, is not just immoral, but idiotic. A healthy flow of immigrants is vital to a healthy economy, which is exactly what Trump needs in order to win a second term.

NPR recently visited a restaurant in Missouri and asked the owner if the foreigners she employs were purloining paychecks from victimized Americans.

“That is the biggest joke. I hear it all the time,” she replied. “You cannot hire an American here that will show up to work.”What would she do, NPR asked, “if every unauthorized worker in her city were deported tomorrow?” The owner quickly replied, “We’d close. I’d sell everything for whatever we could get for it and we would close.”

That is a common story. If all the foreign-born workers in American hospitals — especially women of color — were sent away, most institutions would have to close immediately. If every fruit or vegetable that had been planted, picked or packed by an immigrant were removed from your grocery shelves, they’d be empty.

But the contributions made by immigrants go far beyond scrambling eggs or scrubbing bedpans. As economist Dany Bahar of the Brookings Institution notes, while immigrants make up 15% of the workforce, they account for a quarter of the entrepreneurs and investors powering the American economy.

“By cutting on immigration, the country will miss an opportunity for new inventions and ventures that could generate the jobs that the president is so committed to bring back,” writes Bahar. “Thus, if the current administration wants to create jobs and ‘make America great again,’ it should consider enlisting more immigrants.”

Moreover, as retirement rates rise and birth rates plunge, who is going to pay the taxes that finance the social services for all those aging white men who voted for Trump? Young immigrants, that’s who — many of them nonwhites from what Trump calls “s-hole countries.”

“Far from making America great again,” writes the Washington Post, “the president’s policies are likely to transform the United States into a second Japan, where an aging population and barriers to immigration have sapped the dynamism and prospects of what was once one of the world’s most dynamic economies.”

Trump has repeatedly tried to choke off immigration. He’s slashed the number of refugees the country accepts, and made it far more difficult for anyone seeking asylum from persecution back home. His latest malicious scheme would block low-income foreigners that might conceivably use public services like food stamps or housing subsidies. But those are precisely the workers coveted countless employers across the country.

A Post report from Maine, the state with the nation’s oldest population, documented a crisis in health care workers. Janet Flaherty’s 82-year-old mother qualifies for in-home services, but the state cannot find anyone to fill the job. “We do not know what to do,” said Flaherty, who sells insurance. “We do not know where to go. We are in such dire need of help.”

The California Farm Bureau Federation recently estimated that 56% of its members can’t find enough laborers to pick their crops, and 7 in 10 said the problem has been getting worse since Trump took office. NPR quoted a celery farmer in Oxnard who said there was only one answer to the labor shortage: shift a chunk of his production to Mexico.

The Dallas Morning News reports that lack of workers is the “biggest threat to the rolling Texas economy” and quotes Greg Brown, president of a distribution and storage company: “It’s just really hard to find people. Every week, we have more work than people to do it. It’s like having a lid on the business. It’s holding us down.”

Trump’s anti-immigration policies are not lifting the country up; they are indeed “holding us down.” He appeals to fear, not the future. If he really cared about enhancing American greatness, he’d open doors to more immigrants — not slam them shut.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at