To hear Donald Trump talk, you’d think immigrants are “rapists” who are “animals” trying to “infest” the country and put “great pressure on taxpayers” — because these are all things he has actually said. Which is the better-known Trump quote, the one that comes closest to the tone Trump has set on immigration?
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people. . . .”
“Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways. I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.”
There’s a difference, of course, between legal and illegal immigration, although Trump’s incendiary comments on the latter tend to drown out whatever nuance there is on the former. If your views on immigrants, legal or otherwise, are of the negative variety, than we suggest you read a recent report on immigration in Roanoke. The report was prepared by the New American Economy, a New York-based non-profit whose stated aim is to “raise awareness of the economic benefits of sensible immigration reform.” Its basic viewpoint is that immigration is generally a good thing for the economy but whatever the ideological outlook of its conclusion, the numbers don’t lie, so let’s just look at the numbers.
1. Immigrants make up 5.5% of the Roanoke Valley’s population. Historically speaking, this is not a high percentage. It’s not even a high percentage in the context of the nation today. In 2017, 13.7% of the nation’s population were immigrants, so the Roanoke Valley sees a lot less immigration than the nation at large. Nationally, we’re seeing one of the higher periods of immigration in our history but not the highest. In historical terms, we’re replicating the late 1800s and early 1900s, which immigration ran at about the same levels — or actually higher. In three censuses — 1870, 1890 and 1910 — more than 14% of the population were immigrants. The high-water mark came in 1890, with 14.8%. So we’re not really seeing anything new here. The only thing new is where those immigrants are coming from —primarily Europe then, mostly Latin America, Africa and Asia now. The distinction between legal and illegal immigration is a relatively new concept. Back then, people simply showed up and got off the boat. There were basically no laws about immigration until the late 1800s, when federal law started blocking “idiots, lunatics, convicts, and persons likely to become a public charge” — and anyone who was Chinese.
If immigration feels high to you now, it’s only because most of us have lived through what, historically, is an abnormal period in American history. Immigration declined sharply during and after World War II and didn’t start to increase again until the 1970s. The lowest period of immigration in American history was 1970, when only 4.7% of the population were immigrants. That puts Roanoke’s current immigrant population in a very different light: Roanoke today isn’t that much higher than the United States was at its lowest point of immigration. Roanoke could double its share of immigrants and still not really be in line with the nation — and most of American history.
2. Immigrants are driving economic growth in the Roanoke Valley. We’re not seeing much population growth — just 1.2% over the past five years — but immigrants account for 35.2% of that. To the extent that population growth is connected with economic growth, immigrants account for more than one-third of that growth in the Roanoke Valley. And here’s where things start to get really interesting.
3. Immigrants are driving the region’s technology sector. While immigrants constitute just 5.5% of the valley’s population, they account for 11.4% of the workers in the prestigious “STEM” fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
4. Immigrants are more likely to be entrepreneurs than U.S.-born Americans. While immigrants constitute 5.5% of the valley’s population, they account for 7.3% of the business owners. Nationally 7.2% of U.S.-born Americans are business owners. Nationally, 7.9% of businesses are owned by immigrants, which means they are 10% more likely to start a business than U.S.-born Americans.
5. Immigrants are more likely to have a better education than native Americans. In the Roanoke Valley, 9.1% of U.S.-born American have something more than a four-year college degree — but 10.7% of immigrants here do. One of the economic imperatives for the region, as we transition from the industrial age to the information age, is to develop a better-skilled workforce. Immigrants are helping us do that.
6. Immigrants are less likely to receive public assistance than U.S.-born Americans. The report found that 35% of U.S.-born Americans in the Roanoke Valley receive Medicare or Medicaid. By contrast, only 23.6% of immigrants here do. If you’re concerned about people mooching off taxpayers, then clearly what we need are more immigrants and fewer U.S.-born Americans. OK, we’ve written that last line facetiously, but ideally the point is clear: Many of the popular perceptions about immigrants are simply wrong, and these numbers show how and why.
7. Immigrants in the Roanoke Valley paid $52 million in 2017 in federal taxes and $23.1 million in state and local taxes. Here’s one way to visualize that: Salem last year got $17.5 million in state funding for its school system and Covington got nearly $6 million. So if you want to look at it this way, immigrants in the Roanoke Valley paid enough taxes to cover all the state funding for schools in those two cities. Here’s another way to look at those figures: If immigrants were not paying those taxes, then U.S.-born residents would probably be paying more taxes to support those school systems. That would be, as Trump says, “great pressure on taxpayers.” If you like keeping your taxes low, then maybe you should want more immigrants who can pay into the tax coffers.
Here’s another way to look at things: After those taxes, immigrants in the Roanoke Valley were left with $228.7 million. That’s about four times the payroll of Radford University or about half the size of the Virginia Tech payroll. Now, just for fun, why don’t you imagine what our local economy would be like if our immigration rates matched the rest of the country?