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A Student of U.S. Immigration Points to Economic Impact

Qingfang Wang had already started a promising career at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one of Asia’s top-ranked think tanks,  when the University of Georgia offered her a fellowship for a PhD in geography. She jumped at the chance. “The U.S. has the best higher-education system,” she says. “I knew the famous scholars in my field, and I wanted to come here to study with them.” Now an associate professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside, Wang has built a career studying the economic impact of immigration in American cities. She says the immigration debate should be driven by hard evidence, not political rhetoric. “That way we’ll have a better understanding about the contributions from immigration, and people will realize how much immigration is contributing to the economy,” she says.

Wang’s own immigration story is straightforward: As an academic, she didn’t have to worry about visa quotas. “Normally, if a university offers you a job, you’re sort of guaranteed an H1B visa,” she says, referring to the temporary visa for high-skilled workers. Still, it took her another six years to secure permanent residency. “It’s much harder. It’s a big headache, and a big worry as well,” she says.

A lot of immigrants have degrees in their home countries, but their credentials aren’t recognized here. It’s definitely a waste of human capital.

One stumbling block was that Wang’s husband, an experienced chemical engineer, was unable to find a good job. “After a couple of years, he went back to school and did another master’s degree,” Wang says. “Then, later, our two kids were born, and we decided he’d stay at home.” When the couple finally received their green cards in 2011, Wang’s husband had been out of the workforce so long he decided to remain a stay-at-home dad.

Wang sees many immigrants in similar situations, where a highly skilled spouse is either  prohibited by U.S. immigration policy from working, or a highly educated immigrant’s professional qualifications aren’t accepted by U.S. employers. “A lot of immigrants have degrees in their home countries, but their credentials aren’t recognized here,” she says. “It’s definitely a waste of human capital.”

It also represents lost income for the U.S. government and for Americans. Nearly 2 million immigrants with college degrees are relegated to low-skill jobs or unable to find work. If those immigrants were working at their skill level, in the professions in which they had trained, they would earn an additional $39 billion annually and pay $10 billion more in taxes. “In the wage-labor market, they may have few opportunities to find a job,” Wang says. “Because they’re blocked, they’re forced to think of starting their own businesses.”

That’s especially true for recent immigrants from places like Asia, many of whom arrive with both a good education and fairly significant resources. “The new immigrants today, a lot of them come with financial and social capital,” Wang says. Despite that, many immigrant entrepreneurs struggle to access the loans and capital they need to expand. “There’s no institutional support — you have to really rely on your friends, and your family, and yourself,” Wang says.

Still, those immigrant-owned businesses have an enormous positive impact on American communities. California’s immigrant-owned firms employ 1.46 million people, and generate business income of $21.8 billion per year. “Immigrant entrepreneurs are contributing to the mainstream economy by creating jobs and generating revenue,” Wang says. In addition, by opening shops in areas that are affordable or accessible to them, immigrants often end up revitalizing entire neighborhoods, making them safer and more attractive for everyone. They’re “changing our places at the local scale,” Wang says.

Wang notes that immigrant entrepreneurs also tend to give back to their communities through public service or philanthropic work. Cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina, Baltimore, and Denver, all of which encourage immigrant entrepreneurship, are experiencing both economic and social benefits, she says. “Immigrant businesses and immigrant business owners should be treated as a potential agent or engine for growth,” she says. “These business owners can be a big part of making changes from inside the community.”

While Wang doesn’t support open borders — “I don’t believe it’s possible for everyone who wants to come to be able to come,” she says — she does think the immigration debate needs to be addressed as an economic and social issue, rather than purely a political one. “The immigration discussion shouldn’t be politically driven — it should be guided by looking at the economic impact,” she says. “We shouldn’t waste the human capital of the people who are already here, whether they’re documented or undocumented.”

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