Immigration has been front and center this election cycle, but a key message has been missing from the debate: Immigrants contribute to economic growth – both here in North Carolina and across the country.
One central theme of North Carolina’s story in recent years has been growth. Since the 2010 census, North Carolina’s population has increased by more than the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimated 5 percent. The Partnership for a New American Economy, an immigration advocacy organization, has released new research showing that immigrants have been a big contributor to this growth and will continue to play an integral role in the state’s economic future.
Today, nearly 770,000 immigrants call North Carolina home. More than simply growing the population, they are helping to create jobs and increase our state’s tax base as well. In 2014, immigrant-led households in North Carolina earned more than $19 billion in income and paid more than $5 billion in taxes. This means that North Carolina’s foreign-born population held $14.2 billion in spending power, which gets poured into local businesses in cities and towns throughout the state.
Immigrants often tend to be entrepreneurially minded, and North Carolina’s foreign-born residents are no exception. In 2014, the state’s immigrant-owned businesses generated more than $972 million in business income. These businesses not only add to the state’s GDP but also provide jobs for more than 120,800 North Carolinians.
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Congress needs to enact reforms that will allow this business growth to flourish and continue. A visa designated for entrepreneurs or making it easier for the thousands of international students who are currently earnings advanced degrees in North Carolina to stay and work upon completion of their programs are just two ways our immigration system can be revised to better meet today’s market needs.
North Carolina’s high-skilled fields would particularly benefit from sensible, future-looking reform. We currently face a skills gap: For every one unemployed STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) worker in North Carolina, there were more than 11 open STEM jobs advertised online in 2014. While we need to improve our education system to adequately train and prepare our students for success in these fields, reforming our immigration system to more easily allow qualified, foreign-born workers to fill these immediate gaps is crucial for North Carolina’s sustained economic growth.
North Carolina’s agriculture industry, which contributed nearly $6 billion to the state’s GDP in 2014, would also be bolstered by reform. Today, almost one-third of all agricultural workers in the state are immigrants, yet farmers continue to struggle with finding adequate labor to meet harvesting needs. Between 2002 and 2014, North Carolina and Virginia experienced a 13.4 percent decline in the number of field and crop workers, and many farmers have had to cut back on the number of crops they produce or the acreage they harvest from.
Modernizing the current H-2A visa system to eliminate the mounds of paperwork and high costs that often result in excessive delays and block production would allow America’s farmers to obtain the workforce necessary to avoid produce waste and harvest reductions.
The simple fact is immigration is growing our state and our economy. We need to encourage our members of Congress to make it easier – not harder – for immigrants to come, prosper and contribute to our local communities in concrete, tangible ways. Campaign stump speeches may fail to acknowledge the economic benefits of a modernized, streamlined and fair immigration system, but North Carolina’s leaders should not overlook this key piece to our state’s future economic success.
Laura Edgerton, a Raleigh lawyer, is a former chair of the Carolinas Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.