Labor Day is an annual observation won by labor activists who “pushed for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity, and well-being,” the U.S. Department of Labor said. According to new polling, labor unions enjoy strong support from the American people and especially young people. USA Today reports that more than two-thirds of Americans support labor unions while that support grows to 88% among those under 30. As the country celebrates American workers, this holiday cannot be fully celebrated without acknowledging and honoring the contributions made by immigrants, including those without legal immigration status.
U.S. IMMIGRANTS ARE A VITAL PART OF OUR WORKFORCE
Immigrants are major participants in the U.S. workforce and economy, representing one in six U.S. workers. Millions of immigrants are a part of major industries, including healthcare, manufacturing, and construction. Their households are also major participants in our economy, contributing a total of $330.7 billion in federal taxes every year. “In the United States, residents of immigrant-led households had $1.3 trillion in collective spending power (after-tax income) in 2019,” the American Immigration Council (AIC) said.
Immigrants have been described as “natural entrepreneurs,” with one study finding that they’re as much as 80% more likely to start a company. A 2022 review of Fortune 500 companies by AIC found that nearly 44% of the largest U.S. companies had immigrant roots, and were founded by either an immigrant or a child of immigrants. These companies have generated over $7 trillion in revenue, “greater than the GDP of every country in the world outside the United States, except China.”
“Whether migration is a choice or borne out of necessity, those who decide to migrate will be different from average in a number of respects from their personal circumstances to their personalities,” Forbes reported in 2018. “This has been demonstrated in a number of studies which link personality characteristics such as openness to new experiences with the decision to migrate.”
UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS ARE MAJOR ECONOMIC ENGINES, TOO
While millions of undocumented immigrants continue to remain in limbo due to federal inaction on immigration reform, they are the backbone of industries like construction and agriculture. The latter were deemed “essential workers” during the novel coronavirus pandemic while still being denied a pathway to citizenship. Without these workers, agriculture would collapse.
As Wall Street Journal columnist and former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in 2020, “you have seen who’s delivering the food, stocking the shelves, running the hospital ward, holding your hand when you’re on the ventilator. It is the newest Americans, immigrants, and some are here illegally. They worked through an epidemic and kept America going.” She wrote that we should extend an offer of citizenship to these workers, ‘With a note printed on top: “With thanks from a grateful nation.”
“Undocumented immigrants account for 50 percent of all hired field and crop workers, making them essential to the success and continued viability of American farms,” New American Economy said.
Undocumented workers also make up major shares of workers in food service, construction, and grounds maintenance. Just how ingrained are these workers in our economy? Former President Donald Trump – who launched his political career on the backs of undocumented immigrants – employed undocumented workers at his hotels, construction sites, resorts and golf clubs.
Together, undocumented workers are major contributors to our economy. “Households headed by undocumented immigrants in the United States paid an estimated $18.9 billion in federal taxes and $11.7 billion in combined state and local taxes in 2019,” AIC said.
DREAMERS AND TPS HOLDERS HELP DRIVE GROWTH
Households headed by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and those eligible for the policy are also major contributors, paying “an estimated $3.4 billion in federal taxes and $2.7 billion in combined state and local taxes in 2019.” Continued research has shown that nearly 80% of the current DACA population is employed, contributing an estimated $13.3 billion to our economy annually. Temporary Protected Status Holders (TPS), meanwhile, contribute $17.4 billion in federal taxes and hold more than $75 billion in spending power.
Roughly 300,000 DACA recipients work in key industries facing labor shortages, including the medical field. Per 2020 data from the Center for American Progress, an estimated 29,000 health care workers are DACA recipients. Many, like intensive care nurse Ana Cueva, were in the frontlines of the pandemic. TPS recipients similarly hold critical essential jobs in medical care, as well as construction and food services and some have been in the U.S. for more than 25 years.
During a press call hosted by America’s Voice this week, Maria Barahona, a Salvadoran TPS holder, home care worker, and member of SEIU 2015, called the protections “a blessing” that have improved her life and the lives of her loved ones. She notes there’s a critical shortage in home care workers that immigrants help fill.
“In my home care profession, many more people are needed to be able to care for the elderly and special children with different disabilities,” she said. “Granting TPS has the potential for more immigrants to be able to help more Americans who need help in their homes. In addition, the TPS helps them to live without fear and also to establish our lives in this country.”
WELCOMING REFUGEES IS MORAL — AND BENEFICIAL TO OUR NATION
Welcoming refugees from regions in crisis isn’t just in keeping with our values as a welcoming nation, it’s a winner for our labor force and economy too. While opponents commonly cite the initial costs of resettling a refugee in the United States, the eventual contributions that settled families make to our country vastly overshadow that.
“In 2019, the almost 2.4 million refugees captured in our analysis earned a collective $93.6 billion in household income,” AIC said earlier this year. “They also contributed $25 billion in taxes. That left them with $68.6 billion in disposable income, or spending power, to use at U.S. businesses.” North Carolina, Michigan, and Massachusetts are among the 19 states where refugees hold more than $1 billion in spending power. “In California alone, their spending power totals more than $20.7 billion, while in Texas the equivalent figure is more than $5.4 billion.”
While refugees build their new lives, they’re helping rebuild a shrinking workforce. “Recent estimates have indicated that by 2030, 20.3 percent of the U.S. population will be older than age 65, up from just 12.4 percent in 2000,” we noted in 2017. “Refugees can help lessen the anticipated strain this will place on the U.S. workforce and entitlement programs. An estimated 77.1 percent of refugees are working-age, compared to the just 49.7 percent of the U.S.-born population.”
Vita Bohera, a Ukrainian refugee who got her work authorization last fall, is among these new workers. “She began browsing Facebook pages for job opportunities,” the Los Angeles Times reported in July. “After two months of training, Bohera found work as a medical interpreter, earning $20 to $40 an hour.” Zakira, an Afghan refugee, was a nurse back home. After getting her work permit, she was both able to return to the medical field, support herself and her family, and help fill a critical health care shortage in one swoop.
IMMIGRANTS ARE KEY TO OUR FUTURE
The facts don’t lie: immigration is good for families, it’s good for our economy and businesses, and it’s key to our success. “Legal permanent residence would expand the employment opportunities for a significant portion of this population,” said a 2023 Economic Report Of The President. “As such, immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented individuals would help to increase the labor supply.” CNBC previously reported that the construction industry is facing a shortage of more than 650,000 workers, “the highest level of open positions ever recorded.” It’s not just the construction industry either.
“We have so many jobs open … we need to have a really serious conversation at some point in this country about immigration,” former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said last year. “When I talk to CEOs from companies all across America, they’re all in favor of immigration reform, they’re all in favor of pathways, of visas for people coming to the United States working … we certainly don’t have enough people to fill those jobs [listed as open] … at some point, the issue of workers has to be addressed and the only way you can do it is through immigration.”
Despite these clear needs, anti-immigrant legislators continue to block efforts to overhaul our system, continuing to hurt families and dampening our economic potential. Nativism hurts us all.
But there are steps the Biden administration can take within its own authority, like expanding work permits to allow more immigrants to work. “Humanitarian Parole and work permits are a practical solution for our country’s labor shortage,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair Nanette Barragán. “For immigrants and their loved ones, this provides economic security and the opportunity to work towards a better life. Immigrants’ skills strengthen and enrich our workforce, and they should be allowed to contribute to our economy.” It’s true not just on Labor Day, but every day.