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Immigration and the Sustainable Urban Economy

My mother was an immigrant. She moved to New York City from Sweden after she married my American father. His grandparents many generations removed were immigrants, too — they came from Scotland. I am an immigrant, at least in the regional se…

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My mother was an immigrant. She moved to New York City from Sweden after she married my American father. His grandparents many generations removed were immigrants, too — they came from Scotland. I am an immigrant, at least in the regional sense: I moved from Auburn, Alabama to Washington, D.C. to Denver to Germantown, Maryland to Denver to Tucson, Arizona, where I live now. Most of us are immigrants, I’d wager, whether globally or regionally. It seems that we all come from somewhere else; we all claim a heritage likely rich in place and tradition, even if poor in economy.

While my mother moved for love, my father’s ancestors came to America for economic opportunity. I’ve moved for the same reasons, though I admit my fortune in having the option to choose both employment and geographic location. Surely, most working-age Americans move from city to city for the same reason — to seek a better job, or fill a position they’ve already accepted. So why is it we adamantly deny these same economic opportunities to today’s immigrants?

January 1, 2008, marked a new era for Arizona, for here the Legal Arizona Workers Act is now in effect. The law punishes businesses that knowingly hire illegal entrants. In Tucson and most of the U.S., that means illegal immigrants from Mexico. The law also requires businesses to use the new federal E-verify system when hiring. According to the Arizona Daily Star, “Proponents say the law will force illegal entrants to move elsewhere, reducing the costs incurred by schools, hospitals, and the criminal justice system. Opponents counter that it will cripple the Arizona economy by eliminating a valuable work force and result in some employers relocating.”

If a report released by the University of Arizona’s Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy in October 2007 is correct, then the proponents are wrong. Using an economic simulation model, researchers tallied the fiscal costs and benefits of immigrants in Arizona’s economy for 2004. They found that the total state tax revenue attributable to immigrant workers was nearly $2.4 billion ($860 million for naturalized citizens plus $1.5 billion for non-citizens, a majority likely undocumented) balanced against fiscal costs of about $1.4 billion — resulting in a net positive impact of about $940 million. Immigrants in Arizona generate more than $3 in taxes for every $2 they incur for government services, such as schools, hospitals, and the criminal justice system.

Judith Gans, the report’s principal author and manager of the Udall Center’s immigration policy program, says, “Because immigrants are filling specific gaps in Arizona’s labor force, they are making possible economic activity that otherwise would not occur.”

Immigrant employment is a significant issue in Tucson and many metropolitan areas, as well as in agricultural areas. It is significant because without the labor, the jobs wouldn’t get done. Certainly these laborers are providing “economic activity that otherwise would not occur,” but just as importantly they’re providing work activity that otherwise wouldn’t occur. It seems to me that the opponents of the Legal Arizona Workers Act, beyond a humanitarian compassion for the general rights of immigrants, are demonstrating a kind of sustainability wisdom we should not ignore.

How would our cities, let alone our states and nation, function without immigrant labor? By denying immigrants the right to pursue economic opportunities, we deny ourselves the capability of reaching the sustainable urban economy.

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