By all indicators, Georgia’s economy is healthy. State tax collections are up when compared to last year, and our reserves are full. Just last month, CNBC recognized Georgia’s economy as the best in the nation, citing solid growth. Traditional sectors such as Georgia’s $75 billion agriculture industry and $61 billion tourism industry remain strong, while newer sectors such as the $40 billion technology industry and $7 billion film and television industry continue to expand.
The continued success of these and other strong sectors such as construction, manufacturing, logistics, and healthcare will rely in large part on the availability of an abundant workforce with diverse skills. It will also rely on our leaders in Washington, D.C., making the right decisions about immigration reform.
Immigrants make up 14 percent of our state’s workforce. While this may seem like a small percentage – these men and women play significant roles. For example, foreign-born workers hold 35 percent of the jobs in the agriculture industry, are 32 percent of construction laborers, and represent 43 percent of Georgia’s software and systems developers.
Immigrants are not only employees, they are creating jobs. Nearly 75,000 immigrants in our state are entrepreneurs, and immigrant-owned companies employ nearly 140,000 Georgians. And those numbers aren’t counting the many publicly traded Fortune 500 companies located in our state, many of which were either founded by immigrants or their children.
While there are aspects of the current immigration system that are without question long overdue for reform, any proposed changes must take the needs of our economy into account. Over 1,400 economists, including 39 from Georgia, made this point in a letter to the Trump administration and congressional leaders earlier this year that talked about the important role immigrants play in driving economic growth and creating even more jobs for American-born workers.
So what are some of the measures we believe should be considered?
Most immediately is the need for a permanent solution for Dreamers, young people who were brought to the United States by their families as children who are now getting their education, or are part of the workforce. While the Trump Administration has kept the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in place and the President has said repeatedly that he does not want to negatively impact Dreamers, 10 Attorneys General have threatened to file a lawsuit if the program is not ended by September 5. In Georgia, this could mean the immediate threat of deportation for over 24,000 young workers, many of whom are high school or college graduates and all of whom have done the right thing by applying to be part of the program and meeting its stringent requirements. It would also mean the loss of the over $28 million they pay each year in state and local taxes.
Of equal importance is the need to move cautiously with changes to the current immigration system such as those proposed by U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., in the RAISE Act, which he introduced with U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas earlier this month. The legislation, which has received support from the Trump Administration, would result in an overall cut of 50 percent to legal immigration into the United States, negatively impacting industries that rely on high-skilled workers such as the technology and film industries as well as those that rely on seasonal workers like the agriculture and tourism industries.
High-skilled workers, such as those who come to America through the H-1B visa program, are directly responsible for creating new American jobs by helping companies develop new products and open new markets for U.S. goods and services. These temporary visas, which also help to fill critical roles in healthcare and education, are already capped at a level that only meets 30 percent of demand.
Finally, the discussion around reform should focus on the safety of all of our citizens while recognizing that there are nearly 1 million immigrants who call Georgia home, work across the state’s many industry sectors, wield over $19 billion in spending power, and pay nearly $7 billion in taxes. Those who are contributing members of their communities and our state, deserve a legal pathway to citizenship, something supported by 80 percent of Americans according to a Marist poll conducted earlier this year.
Georgia’s economic growth has coincided with a population growth that has made our state one of the nation’s most diverse. Recognizing that diversity and supporting changes in immigration policy that keep our nation safe while allowing high-skilled and hard-working men and women to continue to contribute to our economic success is what will ensure we remain one of the best states for business and that our economy continues to grow long into the future.
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Bruce Seaman is an associate professor of economics, Georgia State University. Sam Zamarripa is CEO of Intent Solutions, and co-founder of The Essential Economy Council.