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Guest Commentary: Immigrants Are the Solution, Not the Problem

Michael Smerconish published a report last week on swing state voters’ fear about immigrants. But, the Welcoming Center’s President/CEO points out, the facts tell a different story

Guest Commentary: Immigrants Are the Solution, Not the Problem

Michael Smerconish published a report last week on swing state voters’ fear about immigrants. But, the Welcoming Center’s President/CEO points out, the facts tell a different story

Philadelphia media personality Michael Smerconish recently published an article on his blog by Rich Thau and Matt Steffee identifying why immigration has become the driving issue in this year’s presidential election. The authors cite national polling data, reflecting the issue’s rise as voters’ top concern. Digging deeper, they call upon anecdotal focus group input to explain why voters are feeling this way in key swing states (Michigan and Wisconsin). Sentiments range from concern that unknown immigrants harbor the next public health crisis, to the belief they will live off the public dole in perpetuity.

The research reveals an extraordinary dichotomy: Voter concern with an issue that could very well determine the White House’s next occupant, as well as the fate of American democracy as we have professed to understand it for nearly 250 years, is entirely adrift from facts and evidence. How ironic for a nation built almost entirely by immigrants.

Pennsylvania’s importance in this year’s election outcome is on par with Wisconsin and Michigan, where the focus groups took place. Moreover, our purple political hue, similar to those states, will ensure a victory margin that could be as low as a few thousand votes. While recent polling suggests Pennsylvania voters are primarily consumed by economic matters, immigration ranks as a priority issue. It could be enough to make the difference.

As Thau and Steffee’s evidence suggests, we could allow pure emotion and the instinctual fear of difference to govern our vote. Or we could strive to make marginally more informed decisions. It’s a relatively easy threshold. We don’t need to read reams of research or to become economists and demographers. We can start by looking around and within.

Let’s begin with a basic truth of our country’s history: We are one of the only nations on earth in which 98 percent of us have a lineage that begins in another land. (Two percent of U.S. residents identify as Native American or Alaska Native.) For hundreds of years, there was no vetting or right way to come to America. Yet somehow, centuries of immigration, including those who were forcibly displaced, fueled our nation’s rise. Our respective lineage’s underlying root can be a powerful unifier. If we can remember that, it may be more difficult to other newcomers.

Hearts and minds don’t flip on naivete alone. If the economy is truly voters’ main issue, let’s move to brass tax facts. Recent analyses by the Federal Reserve and the Economic Policy Institute document that immigrants have largely fueled our nation’s post-Covid economic recovery. Nearly 50 percent of the nearly 3 million jobs added to our economy in 2023 was attributable to immigrants. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office also has estimated that, over the coming decade, the national economy will grow by an approximate $7 trillion so long as we maintain a steady stream of newcomers to America. Our immigrant-driven economic rebound happens to be contemporaneous with one of the highest levels of border crossing apprehensions in American history.

But national economic data and 13-digit forecasts can feel esoteric and unrelatable to most. When a gallon of milk costs over $5 and a bag of Herr’s chips is half the size and double the cost of three years ago, it’s instinctual to blame the unknown. Immigrants are the newest Americans. They may speak an unknown language, practice a different religion, or prepare culinary delights we are unfamiliar with. They become easy scapegoats for complex issues that have absolutely nothing to do with them.

Voter concern with immigration that could very well determine the fate of American democracy as we have professed to understand it for nearly 250 years is entirely adrift from facts and evidence.

If daily economic experiences ultimately drive opinion, let’s paint an accurate picture of immigration’s impact in our backyard. Immigrants are starting businesses and filling jobs in almost every sector of our state’s economy. While they comprise just over 7 percent of our statewide population, nearly 14 percent of all Pennsylvania entrepreneurs are immigrants.

In 2021, Pennsylvania immigrants paid over $11 billion in taxes. They are also coming here with extraordinary skills and education. Over 41 percent of Pennsylvania’s foreign born population over 25 years old has a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 34 percent amongst the same native-born population. And at a time when nearly every industry and occupation face labor shortages, nearly 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s immigrants are working age, whereas among our aging native born population, only 61.5 percent are still considered working age.

Immigrants’ transformative impact in Philadelphia has been even more profound. After 57 years of continuous population decline, immigrants have fueled our city’s rebirth, accounting almost entirely for the growth margin we have experienced since 2007. Newcomers from across the globe have added nearly 100,000 additional new residents to Philadelphia over the last two decades. They have revitalized commercial corridors from Woodland Avenue in Southwest to Castor and Cottman avenues in the Northeast.

What’s more, Philadelphia immigrants are 43 percent more likely to start businesses — a creative and entrepreneurial spirit our city has needed for decades. And 45 percent of our City’s foreign born population earns over $50,000 annually, contributing to rebuilding a tax base in America’s poorest big city.

All of this economic activity doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It enables and energizes opportunity and growth benefiting everyone. At a time when total immigration volume has been high (from all sources: refugees, asylum, family and employer sponsorship, etc.), unemployment across the nation is at an extraordinarily low 3.9 percent. Pennsylvania’s rate is even lower at 3.4 percent. No one is taking jobs to the exclusion of others. In fact, they are allowing employers to hire and grow.

These are the facts. We can witness and measure immigration’s true impact in our communities. So if we choose to vote based on the manufactured fear of immigrants, let’s be very clear of what we are afraid of: we fear looking in the mirror at our own history, and we fear economic prosperity for all of us. Pennsylvanians should strive to make a better choice.

Anuj Gupta is the president/CEO of The Welcoming Center, which works to provide economic opportunity for immigrants of all education and skill levels.

The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who represent that it is their own work and their own opinion based on true facts that they know firsthand.


The Welcoming Center's International Professionals Program Class participants celebrate.

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