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The truth about immigration

| Saturday, April 14, 2001

Donald Collins, in his March 23 column, 'Immigration-induced political shift,' presents a very narrow view of the role and impact of new immigrants on our country and region. Choosing almost solely to focus on the nominal political affiliations of new immigrants, he overlooks the positive economic impacts that new immigrants have on the nation.

Narrowing down the debate over immigration policy solely to politics overlooks the many reasons that America needs a continuing influx of new workers and citizens from beyond our borders.

The Pittsburgh region is in even more desperate need of increased international immigration. Between 1998 and 1999, the last year the census estimated international immigration for the Pittsburgh region, only 819 new immigrants settled here. That number barely registers on the range of destinations where immigrants typical settle and places Pittsburgh near the bottom among all regions in its ability to attract immigrants.

Across the nation, the results of the 2000 census show real economic growth fueled by the influx of international immigrants. The new immigrants are not seeking welfare or other charitable benefits, but are working full time or more and filling a crucial need in our labor-force-starved economy.

Not only is the level of immigration crucial to the continued expansion of the U.S. economy, the Pittsburgh region desperately needs to find a way to attract more immigrants than it has in recent years.

VIRGINIA'S EXPERIENCE
Northern Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., has become the core of the high-tech Internet economy on the East Coast, and the population growth there is real and fueled by large increases in immigrants from many regions. Those two facts are highly correlated, as the high-tech work force needed to fuel that region's economy is dependent on foreign workers. The demand for H1-B visas, which is the primary means to bring skilled workers into the country, by U.S. employers far exceeds the rate at which the State Department will issue them.

In Pittsburgh, it is not only high-tech firms that are hoping immigration can meet their work-force needs, but many skilled blue-collar positions are going unfilled.

It is common headline across the country that growth has been fueled by increased immigration in recent years. The migration of population out of urban centers such as Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh is not uncommon as people move outward toward suburbs or farther. For other regions, that internal migration does not necessarily mean decline, as it does here. Unlike Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, Boston and Columbus have all grown in the last decade. The difference in many other cities is the economic and demographic growth fueled by new arrivals, often from overseas.

Even some of the high-tech regions that many think we should emulate - Massachusetts is just one example - have a net out-migration of U.S. residents. That decline is entirely offset but the influx of international immigrants who have arrived in recent years. Pittsburgh would have a very different past and a very different future if it could emulate those regions by attracting more immigrants. A policy of limiting immigrants into the country would only force upon the nation the anemic employment growth that Pittsburgh continues to suffer.

DELETERIOUS EFFECTS
Natural population growth has slowed to a trickle in the United States as fertility rates have declined. In Europe and elsewhere, there is forecasted to be significant decline in many countries if foreign immigration is not increased. Growth in the United States is in many ways shaped by the level of international immigration that can be attracted to the region. There is a need for workers from overseas not only in hard-to-train high-tech jobs but across a broad range of skilled occupations. Immigrants fuel a major need in the economy where labor force shortages are occurring at all skill levels and across many occupations.

Without the continuing influx of workers, the result on the economy would be added inflation, lower output and a lower quality of life for all. The concept put forward that immigrants only dilute the economic pie for the rest of us is far from the truth. That pie would shrink without immigrants, and we all would be worse off as a result. To cut back immigration to 200,000 a year, as was suggested by Mr. Collins, would be a guaranteed policy to not only end the growth that has defined the last decade but also surely throw the economy into a recession.

Pittsburgh could never have been the steel center it was without the workers who came here from across the globe to keep the factories running. The future economy is equally dependent on new arrivals. We strive to be the high-tech and biotechnology capital of the world, but that goal cannot be realized if we do not attract the talented individuals who will build that future.

Christopher Briem is a research associate at the Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

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