tomorrow, that would have a tremendous negative impact on the economy," said Daniel Costa, the director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, an economic research think-tank based in Washington, D.C.
"Immigrants are overrepresented in a lot of occupations in both low- and high-skilled jobs," he said. "You'd feel an impact and loss in many, many different occupations and industries, from construction and landscape to finance and IT."
Hawaii is the perfect place to see how immigrants historically have contributed to the economy and helped to build the state to what it is today.
President and CEO of House of Finance Roland Casamina has a typical story of generational immigrants in his family who’ve contributed to the state’s economy. Today, Casamina is a successful entrepreneur who owns a thriving lending company; but like many immigrants, he worked hard to break out from his humble beginnings.
“My official first job was working as a bus boy at a restaurant in Waikiki at the age of 15,” said Casamina. Even before that job, he cleaned yards and office buildings.
In 1922, Casamina’s grandfather, who is from the Philippines, came to Hawaii in 1922 to work as a plantation laborer. “Subsequently, my uncles came as part of the sakadas in 1946, who eventually brought my father in 1966, who in turn brought us in 1968,” said Casamina.
He and his family were able to immigrate to Hawaii under the family reunification feature of legal immigration, or what President Trump calls “chain migration,” a long-standing tradition he wants to end. Many of Hawaii’s immigrant families arrived in the late 1960s and early 70s by way of family-sponsored petitions from their earlier sakadas relatives.
The Casaminas rented a place in the beginning years and never resorted to receiving government assistance. From the time of his grandfather, to his parents’ generation, up to the present, there was a pattern of hard work over many years. They were economic contributors to their community. Their immigrant story is similar to many immigrant families in Hawaii, and in other parts of the nation.
As workers, small business owners, CEOs of top corporations, innovators and researchers at top universities, major consumers of goods and services, and taxpayers, immigrants are helping to keep the engines of the economy purring and government coffers full.
How many immigrants are in the U.S.?
The U.S. is home to the largest immigrant population in the world.
In 2015, there were 43.3 million immigrants living in the US. That is 13.5 percent of the total population. Immigrants’ children, who are American-born, are an additional 40.6 million. Together, immigrants and their families, make up about 81 million, or 25% of all U.S. residents.
Add to that, there is about 11.1 million undocumented immigrants. Eight million of them are in the workforce.
In Hawaii, one in five Hawaii residents is an immigrant. The American Immigration Council says that most of Hawaii’s immigrants are from the Philippines (46.1 percent of the total), followed by China (8.5 percent), Korea (7.9 percent), Japan (7.7 percent), Vietnam (3.8 percent), and others.
Nationally, the countries with the highest number of immigrants to the U.S. are India, China, Mexico, Canada, and the Philippines, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Just by looking at the massive percentage of the population that immigrants make up, it’s easier to understand why this group is deemed a political threat at the national level. If a majority of eligible or soon-to-be eligible immigrants voted, they could conceivably be one of the largest voting blocks in the country.
What’s keeping this group from being a force is a fear that their recent status as a newcomer could be jeopardized in some way, or worse yet, they could be deported, even if legally they are safe from being deported and are already U.S. citizens. To immigrants, they’ve gone through a very lengthy process to become legal. Each step of the way, many immigrants say, is stressful and frightening. The thought that something could go wrong in the paperwork and waiting process is always in the back of immigrants’ minds. Finally, when they’ve become U.S. citizens, the last thing they think to do is to assert their rights.
Patricio Abinales, professor at UH Manoa’s School of Pacific and Asian Studies, said immigrants are the “easiest scapegoat because they are still ‘foreigners’ and some are hired on a contractual basis.” He says immigrants (who are not yet U.S. citizens) know that “they can be sent back to their home countries should the government think of them as economic or political threats.”
Abinales elaborates, “In times of economic crisis, the racists and ultra-nationalists of a given country can blame them for ‘stealing’ the jobs of local citizens or taking over ‘small businesses’ that supposedly, (that opportunity) should go to locals. Think of the anger over Korean stores in Los Angeles. This is not unique to the U.S.”
The idea of immigrants stealing jobs or opportunities or that they are a financial burden to the country are among the myths many Americans deeply hold, which in turn, give rise to the current wave of anti-immigrant sentiments. But the facts tell a different story.