Opinions are rarely in short supply when it comes to immigration. Whether it’s on cable news, gathered around the family dining table or dominating your Facebook newsfeed, questions of how immigrants affect our economy and communities are clearly on people’s minds. It can prove difficult to separate fact from fiction, since it’s such an emotional issue for many people. But it’s critical that state and local lawmakers find a way through the fog. Georgia cannot remain a state with a vibrant economy and high quality of life if it fails to welcome immigrants, treat them fairly and maximize their positive contributions to local communities.
The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute brings some key facts and analysis to the discussion of Georgia’s foreign-born community with a new report “Immigrants Help Chart Georgia’s Course to Prosperity.” It focuses on three ways that Georgians born outside the country help bolster the state’s economy, finances and communities for the long haul.
- Immigrant entrepreneurs enliven Georgia Main Streets. Foreign-born Georgians own an estimated 31 percent of Main Street businesses in the state, although they account for just 10 percent of the population. Main Street businesses are small enterprises like restaurants, general stores and clothing shops that provide everyday goods and services and help give communities their local character.
- Immigrant workers sustain a cross section of Georgia’s economy. Foreign-born talent is essential to the success of both white-collar and blue-collar industries in Georgia, including health care, technology, skilled trades, hospitality and agriculture. Workers born outside the United States account for an estimated 23 percent of Georgia’s doctors, 26 percent of software developers, 28 percent of skilled construction tradesmen such as carpenters and plumbers and 42 percent of farm laborers.
- Immigrant taxpayers contribute to Georgia’s bottom line. As immigrants start businesses, buy homes, earn wages and spend disposable income at local businesses, they generate considerable state and local tax revenue regardless of citizenship status. Georgia immigrants as a whole contributed nearly $1.8 billion in state and local taxes in 2012, the most recent year available. Even undocumented Georgians contributed an estimated $352 million in state and local taxes in 2012, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
The report also walks through some specific challenges associated with rapid immigration that warrant special attention, such as the need to pressure the U.S. Congress for a solution to lingering questions of legal status. But overall, the evidence is clear: Immigrants already make a sizable contribution to Georgia’s prosperity. They could do even more if Georgia’s state and local lawmakers pursue a more thoughtful set of policies designed to help immigrants realize their full potential.
What are some of those needed policies? For starters, Georgia lawmakers can address challenges that immigrants and non-immigrants share, such as access to affordable child care and housing. Immigrants also face some special challenges that require distinct solutions. Worthwhile efforts include removing barriers to higher education, allowing unauthorized immigrants to access adult education programs like English literacy training, promoting cultural competence among local law enforcement and opening local offices to help immigrants navigate entrepreneurial challenges like how to start a business and find startup capital.
The times call for more practical solutions and fewer dubious opinions. It is in Georgia’s best interests for state and local leaders to ensure all Georgia immigrants, regardless of legal status, can learn, work, pay taxes and serve as contributing members of their communities. Welcoming newcomers with open arms, while offering them opportunities to succeed, is the best way to maximize the benefits of immigration while mitigating any drawbacks. Ensuring Georgia is an attractive and inclusive state where people of all backgrounds can thrive is the surest path possible to building a prosperous future.