As most of you know last night, President Barack Obama addressed immigration reform. Last night the president announced three major initiatives that center on deferred deportation action, increased border security and a pathway to come out of the shadows. It is expected to benefit about 5 million individuals. You can read the president’s fact sheet here. I fully expect those opposed to immigration to voice their displeasure and I thought it important to share with you a quick history of immigration in the United States. Although I realize that immigrants to the US hail from many different countries, all contributing to the identity that is the country, there is no doubt that Mexicans account for the largest immigrant population. Because of this, I am going to focus on Mexican immigrants.
However, first let’s dispense with the issue of using executive orders for immigration reform. Two previous US presidents have used executive orders to correct problems with immigration law. Both were Republican presidents. They were Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. As a matter of fact it was Reagan that pushed forth the most recent immigration reform prior to Obama’s latest action. Of course, the inconvenient facts are the first thing dispensed by political operatives for party politics.
Mexican immigrants to the US account for about 28% of all immigrants that immigrate to the United States. Another inconvenient fact that those that oppose immigration like to overlook is that many of the places where Mexican immigrants are found are places that previously belonged to Mexico. In many ways, some of the immigrants are returning to lands that their ancestors previously lived in.
One of the largest economic sector that Mexican immigrants congregate in is the agricultural sector. Mexican immigrants have harvested crops for US citizens since World War II, as agricultural workers. The Bracero program was started in 1942 as a result of a significant shortage of labor to work the fields. Soon after World War II, internal politics riled against the Mexican immigrants in an attempt to employ US citizens in the agricultural sector. Unfortunately, then as today, US citizen workers moved away from backbreaking work and into more mechanized labor. However, the US still needed to eat and the fields needed to be harvested so the Mexican immigrant continued the work no one else wanted to regardless of their legal status.
From that point on immigrants became the expedient political football needed to appease the electorate during each subsequent political crisis. The reality is that food has remained affordable to many in the United States because of immigrant labor. Mexicans in the agricultural sector have accounted for about 70% of the labor. Unfortunately for those hoping that the president’s latest immigration reform initiative will keep food prices low the reality is that as Mexico gets richer its population is getting richer as well.
According to a U.C. Davis paper, the Mexican immigrant has been gradually shifting away from the farms and into construction since about 1999. Although Mexicans still account for a significant portion of the agriculture labor, it has shifted towards construction. Like in agriculture, housing has benefited greatly from the Mexican laborer, as housing costs have remained low, as a result.
Even though US citizens greatly benefit from Mexican immigrant labor in lower prices, political expediency has interfered with immigration reform to allow the integration of immigrants into the society it benefits. In 2013, the National Association of Home Builders began to sound the alarm that it faced serious labor shortages at the same time the US economy was trying to recover from the housing market crash.
According to the NAHB, immigrants are essential to building a home. They are the carpenters, the painters, the drywall/tile installers, the masons and the general construction labor needed to complete a house. According to the HAHB, 53% of immigrant workers in 2011 were from Mexico.
As with most individuals, Mexican immigrants aspire to grow economically. Many of the agricultural and construction laborers become entrepreneurs. Many of you are aware of the gardeners toiling in your or your neighbor’s garden. The suburban gardeners have steadily diversified across the greater US and today can be found in places like Atlanta, Princeton and of course throughout the southwest.
It was the immigrant gardeners that took a service only available to the wealthy and made it affordable to most homeowners. Of course, it’s not just the men but the women have also become entrepreneurs through childcare and cleaning services. As with the men, these women are not only providing for themselves but have also made previously unattainable services available to the middle-classes.
As economic opportunities increase for everyone so does, the presence of immigrant entrepreneurs is felt in other economic sectors. Here are a few of some recent successful Mexican immigrant entrepreneurs.
Cesar Millan is best known as the Dog Whisperer on his television series. He was homeless for two months after coming to the US as an undocumented immigrant.
Lulu’s Desserts, commonly found in Walmarts across the country, was started by Maria De Lourdes Sobino and now employs about 30 US citizens in the company she founded in 1982.
With $500 loaned to him by the former editor of the magazine Wired, Jordi Muñoz launched 3D Robotics, Inc., a million dollar company producing consumer drones.
Maria Contreras-Sweet founded PROAMERICA Bank a financial services provider for Latino entrepreneurs.
According to a Kaufman Foundation report released in 2012, “immigrants were twice as likely to start businesses as native-born” US citizens. Mexican immigrants are a significant component of business owners providing jobs to US citizens.
One of the largest arguments against immigration is the perceived notion that immigration is an economic drain on the US economy. According to an Economic Policy Institute report in 2011, immigrants accounted for almost 15% of the total US economic output in 2011. They represented only 13% of the population. In other words, they outperformed US born citizens. The same report documents that the share of immigrants who own small business is larger than those owned by US-born workers. According to the report, immigrants comprise 18% of the small business owners.
Immigrant opposition groups for many years, created the notion that undocumented immigrants are a drain on local government services. Health care is at the center of that argument. A 2013 study of Medicare by the journal of Health Affairs documented that immigrants contribute tens of billions a year more than immigrant retires use in medical services. “Immigrants, particularly noncitizens, heavily subsidize Medicare,” the researchers showed.
Immigrants do not just contribute to the US economy but historically they have defended the United States in times of war, particularly Mexican citizens. According to the Whitehouse, since May 2013, 30,000 immigrants were serving in the US military. Keep in mind that these are permanent residents and not US citizens. As a matter of fact, seven Mexican citizens have been awarded the nation’s highest award for their actions in combat. The Medal of Honor was first awarded to a Mexican national in 1875; three were awarded for action in World War II and three for heroism in the Vietnam War. These recognized individuals were citizens of Mexico when they heroically fought to protect the US in time of war.
I fully expect the political rhetoric to intensify as a result of President Obama’s comments last night. I hope that the truth somehow survives the expected onslaught.