All immigrants contribute billions of dollars to local economies in Georgia annually, making this demographic a key cog in the financial fortunes of the state, according to a new study.
But that study also says Georgia is at risk of pushing undocumented immigrants out of the fold with recent legislative proposals.
Those are the findings of a new report released Wednesday by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an Atlanta-based think tank, titled “Immigrants Help Chart Georgia’s Course to Prosperity.”
“The report indicates the continued importance of the Latino and immigrant population toward Georgia’s future prosperity,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. “Legislators should look at facts and research to ensure we can better harness the power of the immigrant community for a prosperous future for all Georgians.”
The data cited in the report does not always distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. And thus, it doesn’t jibe with Republican concerns about the cost of supporting illegal immigration.
The timing of the report, perhaps not surprisingly, dovetails with calls from some political leaders and candidates in recent weeks to close the borders to immigrants and refugees after the terrorist attacks in France and the United States by individuals tied to terrorist groups in the Middle East.
“Besides the obvious safety concerns for those making the perilous pilgrimage to the United States, in an environment of terrorism and health issues, the citizens of (this country) need to know who is crossing the borders,” said Debra Pilgrim, who chairs the Hall County Republican Party. “It shouldn’t be easier to obtain residency in America via an illegal process than a legal one.”
Foreign-born Georgians now own an estimated 31 percent of “Main Street” businesses, such as restaurants, retail stores and convenience shops, in the state while accounting for just 10 percent of the population, according to the report.
And workers who were born outside the United States total about 23 percent of Georgia’s doctors, 26 percent of software developers, 28 percent of skilled construction trades and 42 percent of farm laborers.
Georgia immigrants as a whole contributed nearly $1.8 billion in state and local taxes in 2012, with undocumented immigrants pouring in another $352 million in payroll and health care taxes, according to the GBPI report and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
Pilgrim notes that the Federation for American Immigration Reform disputes the impact of those who are here illegally. The organization estimated in 2008 that undocumented immigrants cost state taxpayers about $1.6 billion in service costs.
“When adjusted for inflation, this number would exceed the amount estimated by GBPI,” Pilgrim said.
Whether a net positive or negative, it is clear immigrants play a major role in Hall County’s economic development. For example, more than 15 percent of residents in the county are foreign-born, and that figure surpasses 25 percent in Gainesville, according to 2014 U.S. Census numbers.
Latinos, the largest immigrant group in the state and locally, owned about 10 percent of all businesses in Gainesville in 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, and about 7 percent across Hall County.
Across the nation, immigrants make up about 28 percent of all entrepreneurs today, rising from slightly more than 13 percent since 1996, according to a report this year from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit based in Kansas City, Mo., that promotes entrepreneurship and youth education.
The report also revealed that foreign-born entrepreneurs are starting small businesses at about twice the rate of native-born individuals in the United States.
Though immigrants are only 13 percent of the nation’s population, according to the latest U.S. Census figures, foreign-born entrepreneurs account for about 30 percent of the share of small business growth since the mid-1990s.
With these figures in mind, the GBPI report focuses on boosting Georgia’s economy by providing affordable child care and housing for all Georgia immigrants, regardless of their legal status; removing barriers to education and increasing access to English literacy programs; promoting “cultural competence” with local law enforcement; and finding ways to support immigrant business owners.
The report helps set the stage for debate on several immigration issues in 2016. For example, the Georgia Supreme Court is currently considering whether certain immigrants can receive in-state tuition at state public colleges. The conflict involves students who have received protection under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Many of these are students were brought to the United States when they were younger without legal documentation. DACA students can receive work permits and exemption from deportation.
Some Republican lawmakers have pressed the case that undocumented immigrant students would hurt the ability of U.S.-born residents to afford college. Some also have renewed calls to prohibit DACA recipients from receiving driver’s licenses.
“While recognizing the impact immigration has had on the history of the U.S., whether the immigrants have come from China, Ireland, Germany, Cuba, Vietnam or some other part of the world, the GOP believes in the lawful entry of foreign aliens,” Pilgrim said.