Migrants Vital to U.S. Growth, Sustainability

February 06, 2012 // 5:00pm6:30pm
National Conversation: Immigration

Boosting GDP and keeping Social Security solvent depend on the economic activity of migrants—as workers, consumers, and taxpayers; and, the United States should do more to regularize both high-tech professionals and other workers, panelists said at the latest installment of The Wilson Center’s National Conversation series, held at the University of Miami February 6.

“For the U.S. economy to grow, it needs growth in the working-age population. In the near-term, this growth will be supplied by immigrants as the native-born alone cannot achieve it,” said former Secretary of Commerce and Wilson Center board member and trustee Carlos Gutierrez. “Immigrants push the economy and they push jobs.”

Gutierrez spoke at Still A Nation of Immigrants?: How Immigration Is Shaping America in the 21st Century, alongside Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Homeland Security; Antonia Hernández, president and CEO, California Community Foundation; and, Andrés Oppenheimer, columnist, Miami Herald. Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, former Special Envoy to the Americas, served as moderator.

While the general population ages, migrants refresh the workforce, and because they are more likely to be of working-age, they contribute more in taxes and withholding than they draw in government services, Medicare, and Social Security, Hernández said. “They are putting more into the Social Security system than they are getting out of it because they are not applying for benefits,” she said.

On enforcement, Chertoff stressed that illegal border-crossing attempts in the Southwest have slowed to a trickle, as the U.S. government has in recent years gained enhanced “operational control” of the zone. Those undocumented persons who remain in the United States are unlikely to be recent crossers, he said. Instead, many are likely to be unlawful visa overstayers. Chertoff stressed that increasing legal channels for migration is sensible, since this would enable enforcement to be more effectively directed against criminals, such as human traffickers and drug smugglers.

Opening the panel, Jane Harman, director, president, and CEO of The Wilson Center, touched on the contributions of migrants to U.S. society. “In my view, immigration is one of our country’s greatest sources of strength,” said Harman, whose father was born in Germany. The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami and former Secretary of Health and Human Services, seconded the contributions migrants have made to U.S. society. She noted they are highly represented among U.S. Nobel laureates, as well as in the executive ranks of the country’s top high-tech companies. 

Event Speakers List: 
  • former Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton; President, McLarty Associates
  • Co-Founder and Managing Principal, Chertoff Group; of counsel at Covington & Burling LLP
  • President and Chief Executive Officer, California Community Foundation; Co-Chair, Latino Leadership Task Force
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