U.S. immigration is a complex topic, and it is the focus of policy debates that can quickly become charged with strong feelings. Most Americans today have personal connections to an immigration experience. For some of us, like me, these connections can be deeply influential, even though immigration is not part of my personal experience. My grandparents both came to New York as young adults. My grandfather in particular was hopeful that the U.S. would provide more opportunity for someone with his working-class German background. This proved true, but like so many immigration stories, also complicated. He became a successful engineer, but he and his immigrant community became the subject of suspicion and isolation during World War II.
I now work alongside many immigrants, as 60 percent of Ph.D.s from U.S. universities are awarded to noncitizens. I consider this one of the great privileges of my job. In my first courses in graduate school, I marveled at the Avengers-like atmosphere of bringing together people from all over the world for a single purpose. Since then, I have sat in academic presentations in which an immigrant researcher presented new insights on the U.S. economy, and each time I have felt a wave of gratitude. It’s remarkable to me that someone not born here would spend their work life trying to understand this country.
Like many of my colleagues, millions of immigrants across the socioeconomic spectrum spend their lives trying to understand and navigate life in the U.S. Their decisions to come to this country are motivated by an endless variety of circumstances, and each person experiences immigration differently. So do the communities that receive them. As an economist, I understand that immigrants shape and grow the U.S. economy. There is strong consensus among economists that immigrants strengthen our economy in myriad ways. More than that, there is good evidence that the potential negative impacts are small or simply more perceived than real.
My personal connections to immigration have strong feelings attached to them, so I understand the emotions around discussions about U.S. immigration policy, even when they differ from mine. How should we use evidence in a public policy discussion where even the experts have emotions that run so high? It is tempting to hope that facts will speak for themselves, but a volley of facts, even true ones, does not make for meaningful conversation. For example, the shortfall in overall immigration described in our feature article is real, as is the sharp rise in border apprehensions. Stating these facts alone will not make it easier to see how to proceed. Instead, we will have to be brave about where the facts point, as well as honest when our emotions make it hard to accept them. If we can do this, we will truly be thinking like economists. The trade-offs we face will come into focus. That is where real conversation about next steps begins.
This article is featured in the Spring 2023 issue of For All, the magazine of the Opportunity & Inclusive Growth Institute
Abigail Wozniak is vice president and director of the Bank’s Opportunity & Inclusive Growth Institute.