Does data about immigrants' economic impact paint whole picture?

Dominican Republic native Jeffrey Zapata knew he wanted to own a barbershop from the time he was young.

At 14, he started practicing. At 19, he opened his first shop in the Dominican Republic — one that his popularity quickly fueled to success.

But in 2006, he ran into his childhood friend named Kendy — she moved to the United States with family when she was 17 — while she was visiting on a short vacation. Their connection undeniable, they married within a year.

Kendy, at the time a legal permanent resident, worked toward and got her citizenship in 2008. She applied and successfully brought Zapata to her New London home three years later.

Determined, Zapata set to work. He got his barber's license. He earned his citizenship. And, in April 2015, he opened the doors to Jeffrey’s Barbershop at 300 Elm St. in New London.

Wanting a safe and family-friendly spot, Zapata installed cameras at the shop. Wanting to give back to the community, he sponsored teams, spoke at schools and volunteered with a local church.

With the help of word-of-mouth, he doubled the New London shop’s capacity from five barbers to 10. Two weeks ago, to his joy, he opened a second branch at 99 Franklin St. in Norwich.

Both shops are open six days a week for nearly 12 hours each day — something Zapata conceded is “not easy.”

“He came over here with his eyes closed and nothing in his hands,” Kendy Zapata said. “Everything he has is because of hard work, dedication and doing everything the right way.”

“Sometimes people put (immigrants) in the same place,” she continued. “If you’re good and I’m bad, they put us together. And that’s not right.”

Immigrants in southeastern Connecticut

Jeffrey's Barbershop is just one of many immigrant-owned businesses around New London and throughout Connecticut’s 2nd Congressional District, according to data a group called New American Economy released last month.

Among other things, the data released as an interactive map show District 2 has 50,371 immigrant residents who make up about 7.1 percent of the population. Almost 2,000 of them are classified as entrepreneurs, and in 2014 they paid $533.9 million in taxes.

Speaking by phone, New American Economy Executive Director Jeremy Robbins said his group last year began compiling the data by pulling U.S Census numbers and applying some of the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy’s research on state-by-state tax incidence.

Robbins said New American Economy, launched by Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch, wanted to create the map so politicians could easily access it and have a “smart, data-driven policy discussion.”

“Progressive, conservative, old, young, immigrant, non-immigrant ... I would be surprised to find a person who thinks our (immigration) system is not broken,” Robbins said. “But we’re getting nowhere because we’re shouting past each other.”

“The left focuses on human rights and family, the right, on law and order and security,” he continued. “We can’t have a debate when we’re speaking a different language.”

New London Mayor Michael Passero said the District 2 numbers didn’t surprise him, although he figures Willimantic, New London and Norwich are where most of the included immigrants reside.

New London, which is approaching a 50 percent nonwhite population, has a long history of growth because of immigrants, Passero said, pointing to its Irish and Italian populations as examples.

It is growth he sees continuing today — sometimes in meetings where Latinos pack the room to ask about starting businesses, and other times when businesses such as Zapata's thrive.

“If New London becomes an incubator for startup businesses by folks who have immigrated here from foreign countries, that’s a plus for New London,” he said.

State Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, said he has no doubt a lot of the city’s Latino business community consists of immigrant owners. He said, too, that he believes most people recognize that immigrants play a large role in the agriculture, construction and restaurant/hospitality industries.

“The strength the immigrant community brings to New London in general is that sense of, ‘there’s no turning back, I’m going to make it because I have no place to go back to,’” he said.

But for Soto, the data from New American Economy would be more valuable if there was a way to see how District 2 compares to other districts with similar characteristics, or to see how immigrants in District 2 compare to non-immigrants here.

“It’s hard to look at data without knowing what it compares to,” Soto said.

What New American Economy says

On its website, New American Economy clearly outlines its principles.

Those include but aren’t limited to:

  • Secure the borders and prevent illegal immigration through tougher enforcement and better use of technology
  • Increase opportunities to attract the brightest and hardest-working immigrants and to keep foreign students in the United States
  • Create a smooth process, one that can change as the need does, to help employers struggling to fill positions with immigrants
  • Establish a path to legal status for the undocumented that requires them to learn English and pay taxes

Robbins emphasized that while high-skilled immigrants strengthen the economy and often fill open high-tech positions, low-skilled immigrants are critical to industries such as agriculture, where as many as 80 percent of workers on any given farm can be foreign-born. He said immigrants also could help fill open health care jobs in rural areas, where employers suggest the long hours and low pay deter U.S. citizens.

Additionally, Robbins said immigrants can help balance the housing market, Medicare and Social Security at a time when the country’s aging population is buying fewer homes and working less.

“We do have a point of view, but this is what economists do,” he acknowledged. “What we released (last month) is very straightforward.”

“People have this idea that every time an immigrant takes a job, an American can’t have one ... but that’s not how the labor market works,” Robbins continued. “At the end of the day, immigration is a huge economic opportunity that we are at least in part squandering by having a broken system while countries around the world get smarter about it.”

Center for Immigration Studies' take

Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, said projects like New American Economy’s “accentuate the positive” while ignoring the negative.

Camarota said it’s true some immigrants come to the United States and excel in high-end jobs or entrepreneurial endeavors. That’s especially true of Koreans and people from some Middle Eastern countries, he said.

But he doubted that most immigrants are more likely than U.S. citizens to own businesses. If numbers that suggest they're twice as likely to start businesses are true, he said, then Bureau of Labor statistics would lead one to conclude those businesses fail at a higher rate.

Camarota said many immigrants land jobs at the low end of the market, which he reasoned allows business owners to keep wages stagnant or even lower them. The owners can keep the difference and choose to do things such as invest the money or lower prices for their customers, Camarota said, but low-end workers, immigrant or not, are the losers.

He also took issue with the idea that industries such as agriculture would falter with substantially less immigrant labor. Of the roughly 25 million foreign-born workers in the country, he noted, only about 500,000, or 2 percent, work in agriculture.

He further pointed out that factory owners made similar arguments when the country moved in the early 1900s to ban child labor, but the lack of child labor didn’t lead to factories’ demise.

While Camarota said documented immigrants at the low end of the labor market use more federal public benefits than any other group in the country, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce document, which noted that documented immigrants only can get those benefits after they've lived in the United States for at least five years, found that U.S. citizens are more likely to receive the benefits.

A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report further found that while immigrants cost state and local budgets $57.4 billion each year from 2011 through 2013, their children created an annual benefit of $30.5 billion.

Once the country shows it can enforce the laws that are in place, Camarota said, he'd like to see a system that prioritizes those with Ph.D.s or entrepreneurial prowess replace the random visa and family-based system in place today.

“Immigration right now is mainly redistributing income from workers to owners of capital,” he said, making note of the wealthy businessmen heading up New American Economy.

“There’s nothing wrong with people arguing for policies that advance their own interests, but it’s important to recognize that’s partly what’s happening,” he said.

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