Indian American researcher finds immigrant protections improve lives of US workers

Scarcity of high-skill professionals could stall robust recovery when covid crisis abates. 

By Arun Kumar

As Trump administration mulls new restrictions on two popular work programs for foreign skilled professionals and students ostensibly to protect American workers, research by an Indian American professor shows immigrant protections improve lives of locals.

Co-authored by Gaurav Khanna, assistant professor of economics at the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS), it lists many ways immigrant rights enhance the lives and livelihoods of native-born workers.

Drawing from a sweeping collection of studies on the US labor market over the past century, the research looks at how legal protections for immigrants affect domestic workers in terms of generating income, innovation, reducing crime and increasing tax revenues, according to a university release.

Published in the UCLA Journal of International Law & Foreign Affairs, the paper on impact of migrant worker rights on receiving economies comes at a time when the White House’s immigration policies are growing more exclusionary during the covid-19 pandemic.

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Contemplated changes include restrictions on H-1B visas, nearly two thirds of which go to Indians and limits on the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program that allows international students to work in the US after graduation while remaining on their student visas.

Gaurav Khanna
Gaurav Khanna

The restrictions are ostensibly designed to help American graduates seeking jobs during the pandemic-fueled economic downturn. However, the move is likely to further hurt the economy, says the research.

“This time the political restrictions seem to be on high-skill foreign-born, like students, OPTs and those with H1B visas,” said Khanna.

“Many high-skill workers have lost their jobs, which means many will have to leave the country soon,” he said. “When the US crisis abates, there may be a scarcity of high-skill professionals, which could stall a robust recovery.”

As one in eight persons living in the US was born in a different country, understanding the impact of migrant worker rights on receiving economies is crucial to immigration policymaking, the paper says.

Legal protections for immigrants aid entrepreneurship and innovation, it says noting about 45 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants.

These companies amass more than $6 trillion in revenue per year and include tech-giants like Google-Alphabet, Microsoft, Tesla and Apple.

ALSO READ: With the economy in tailspin, H-1B visa holders living in fear (May 20, 2020)

Providing legal permanence and stability to immigrants may help incentivize long-term local investments like businesses which lead to an increase in jobs and a larger tax base, Khanna and co-author Anna Brown, a graduate of GPS’s Master of Public Policy program write.

“Extending the H-1B limit or making the green card process easier would provide immigrants with a longer legal work status in the US and allow employers to retain high-skill talent, which could have downstream effects on other industries that use software, like banking, manufacturing and other sectors,” the authors write.

Since the H-1B visa was introduced in 1990, it has yielded many economic benefits.  For example, US-born workers gained $431 million in 2010 as a result of the H-1B, according to previous research from Khanna.

Moreover, another study of his revealed that hiring H-1B workers was strongly associated with firms introducing newer products.

“Unless immigrants are certain they will be allowed to remain within a country, they may not invest in developing a business in that country,” Khanna and Brown write.

“This highlights a problem faced by many migrants who have ambitions to start businesses but will not because they know they may not be able to stay in the country for long.”

In addition to analyzing how immigrant rights aid entrepreneurship, Khanna and Brown also looked at how these policies impact the competition between native-born and immigrant workers.

Immigrant worker rights protect migrant workers from employer exploitation; an indirect benefit of these laws is that they even the playing field between immigrants and non-immigrants.

“Migrant workers, who are not legally protected, face much lower wages compared with their native counterparts,” according to Khanna.

“This is detrimental to US born workers, who are less likely to be hired,” he said. “Ensuring migrant workers have substantial rights inadvertently helps US born workers as well.”

Rights for immigrants also lower crimes in receiving countries, the authors said pointing to previous studies that revealed a correlation between immigrant rights with decreased crime over the course of four decades (1970 to 2010).

“This is because the less protection and work opportunities immigrants have, the more likely they are to turn to criminal activity, as an act of desperation,” said Khanna.

“Criminal behavior is widely understood to be a result of necessity and when given legal employment opportunities at livable wages, crime is reduced.”

More protections for migrants would help lower health care costs too, they wrote noting undocumented migrants may not be eligible for insurance, adding to healthcare costs in times of emergency.

“We find that the fiscal burden can be greatly reduced if immigrants are given working status and allowed to contribute to the tax base,” the authors wrote.

“In conclusion, we find there are several areas where strengthening migrant worker rights benefits native-born workers, outweighing any costs borne by them.”

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