Jacob Vigdor, Professor at Duke University and President of Vigdor Measurement & Evaluation, recently published a study on how immigrants have helped revive American cities such as Dayton, Ohio. He found that immigrants bolster manufacturing jobs and increase housing prices. We’re fortunate that researchers like Professor Vigdor are studying how immigrants benefit our country. Today, I’m honored to bring you an interview with Professor Vigdor. LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins carried out the following interview by email.
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Clarissa Perkins (CP): How did you initially become interested in immigration?
Professor Jacob Vigdor (JV): I started working on immigration as a graduate student. Part of my dissertation dealt with residential segregation between blacks and whites, using Census data from 1890 to 1990. The same data source was also potentially useful for studying the segregation of immigrant groups, so it was a natural extension of that work. It turns out that immigrant segregation and racial segregation behave very differently: Racial segregation has declined since the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but at the same time immigrants have become more segregated, most likely because they have been arriving more rapidly and newcomers tend to cluster together in neighborhoods.
CP: What do you think is the most valuable benefit that immigrants bring to the United States?
JV: If I had to boil it down to a single word, I’d say energy. If you think about it, those who choose to migrate to this country are uprooting their families, abandoning the places where their parents and grandparents lived. A person would only take that drastic step if they believed their new country offered them opportunities that would be impossible to find at home. So every immigrant comes to the United States with that belief — that the opportunity is there if they are willing to work for it. They possess an optimism about what a person can accomplish in this country that is all too often lacking among those of us who were born here. And that optimism makes a difference.
If they are willing to take that first step — to uproot their family — just think about all the other chances they are willing to take once they get here. It is no surprise that immigrants start businesses at a much higher rate than natives.
CP: What are some specific ways you found that immigrants benefit our economy?
JV: There’s the one way I just mentioned: Immigrants start businesses, which create jobs and increase the amount of income flowing through local communities. Immigrants help prevent labor shortages, they make it easier for manufacturing firms and other global businesses to keep operations here in the United States rather than ship them abroad. And no matter where they work, the vast majority of income immigrants earn circulates back through the local economy. The service sector dominates the modern American economy — that’s where about 80% of our jobs are. If your job is in the service sector, it depends on having customers to serve. When you have more customers, there is more work to be done. Immigrants are extra customers.
You commonly hear this argument that “immigrants take American jobs.” When you consider the fact that immigrants often create their own jobs rather than take anybody else’s, immigrants prevent American jobs from being shipped abroad, and that immigrants patronize local businesses to buy everything from food to cars, you realize that this logic is exactly wrong. Immigrants preserve and create American jobs. When communities receive new immigrants, the native population tends to go up at the same time. That would only happen if immigration created new opportunities for natives, not if they took them away.
CP: In your study, you researched the period between 1970 and 2010. Have immigrants impacted our economy in different ways over the years?
JV: If you go back to the 1970s, there were not very many immigrants in the United States, and those that were here were concentrated in a small number of states — Florida, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California. Starting around 1990, immigrants started to shift towards “new” destinations, from Georgia and the Carolinas here in the Southeast, to the Mountain West, even rural areas in the Midwest and New England. The nature of immigrants’ impact on the economy hasn’t changed all that much, but the breadth of that impact has increased dramatically.
CP: You found that naturalization and obtaining citizenship is important for immigrants. Why?
JV: Citizenship opens up new opportunities for immigrants. In most communities, for example, you need to be a citizen to serve as a police officer. Studies have shown that immigrants who become citizens earn much higher wages. But it isn’t just the immigrant who benefits from naturalization. Citizens are people committed to the strength and vitality of the place where they live. Keeping a community strong and vital takes a lot of effort — it takes tax dollars, volunteer hours, and more generally watching after one another. We all benefit when there are more of us committed to share in these efforts.