Opinion

NC’s economy depends on immigrant workers

Wake farmer relies on seasonal workers to help run his vast operation

Video: Wake County farmer Jackie Thompson has relied the H2-A Temporary Agricultural Workers program for more than 25 years to help harvest crops and run his operation that produces tobacco, wheat, cucumbers and soybeans.
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Video: Wake County farmer Jackie Thompson has relied the H2-A Temporary Agricultural Workers program for more than 25 years to help harvest crops and run his operation that produces tobacco, wheat, cucumbers and soybeans.

The national furor over immigration has hit North Carolina hard. Recent clashes between several state sheriffs’ departments and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are as severe as anywhere in the country. Yet, as a new study published by Western Carolina University argues, the public controversy over immigration all too often misses the huge opportunity that immigrants offer.

ICE requires local law-enforcement agencies to report the immigration status of inmates, but sheriffs’ offices in Mecklenburg, Wake and Buncombe counties have announced they will cease cooperating. Last month, ICE officials responded by conducting random immigration checks in Mecklenburg and Wake counties, arresting 200 undocumented immigrants in a single week.

The arrests have many pro-immigration activists up in arms. Yet immigration opponents applaud ICE’s actions as necessary for law and order. But few people dispassionately ask how randomly arresting undocumented immigrants affects the economic welfare of the average native-born North Carolinian.

In fact, North Carolina depends crucially on attracting new workers. The N.C. Department of Commerce projects the need to fill almost 39,000 jobs per year through 2026, yet the native population will grow by only about 21,000 per year, according to the N.C. Office of Budget and Management. By far the biggest need is to fill the 62 percent of annual new job openings in the state that require no high school diploma.

If more and more immigrants fill those jobs, how will that affect North Carolina? The new WCU study, though mostly focused on the national level, can help shed some light on this question.

Economists agree that free trade in goods generally makes people better off. Immigration is just another form of international trade. Some services must be provided at particular locations. For example, geography and climate often dictate where certain foods are best grown. Free trade in labor – through immigration – fully secures economic benefits by locating workers appropriately.

If the laborers best-suited to agricultural work are not free to move to those locations, or if ICE deports them once they’re here, then food will be inefficiently produced with the wrong laborers, with too much capital, and in the wrong places. This makes us all poorer.

Contrary to much of the public furor, however, immigrants benefit Americans. Even conservative estimates say current levels of immigration raise U.S. income by around $50 billion per year. In other words, immigration presents a huge opportunity.

Also, despite popular misconception, immigrants on net do not take “our” jobs. Instead, as the American economy adds more workers, it creates more jobs. The U.S. labor force has grown from around 60 million workers in 1950 to more than 160 million today – without any long-term increase in unemployment.

North Carolina’s future depends on attracting more immigrant workers. But that opportunity is being held back. Random checks by ICE won’t just tear immigrant communities apart; they will also harm the average Carolinian. Like the rest of the country, Carolinians need the federal government to finally work out a deal for comprehensive immigration reform that provides a wider legal path for new workers.

Benjamin Powell is a senior fellow with the Independent Institute and a professor of economics and director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University. Edward Lopez is a professor of economics and director of Western Carolina University’s Center for the Study of Free Enterprise, which has just published Powell’s new immigration study, “A Case for Free Trade in Labor.”

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