Immigrants may move to the United States for a variety of reasons.
Giri Narahari and his wife, Sailaja, for instance, are from India and came to the U.S. for employment. Narahari is now an information-technology professional in Kansas City, Kansas.
Kevin Yu, who lives in Overland Park, came to the U.S. from China almost 30 years ago to attend college at the University of Kansas. He is now on staff there.
Alice Ng and her husband, Tiong Tan, both from Malaysia, also came to the U.S. to pursue higher education. They moved in 1996 to attend Wichita State University, where Ng studied business and Tan studied mechanical engineering.
But regardless of where immigrants come from and why — whether it be for education, employment or some other opportunity — they contribute in many ways to the local and state economies in areas where they settle. And Kansas is no exception.
Some immigrants — like the Naraharis, Yu, Ng and Tan — may even become U.S. citizens.
They joined more than a hundred other immigrants late last month for a series of citizenship ceremonies held May 25 at the Frank Carlson Federal Building in downtown Topeka.
“We feel very proud and very patriotic,” Ng said. “We had been thinking about becoming citizens for many, many years but always put it off. We decided it’s time.”
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With renewed debate over immigration reform at the national level — and given President Joe Biden’s reversal in recent months of a number of his predecessor’s immigration-related executive orders that curtailed the number of visas issued to immigrants — considering such economic impact may be crucial to national and statewide discussion of the issue.
Immigrants contribute to national, state economies
According to a 2020 Pew Research Center report, the United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world, and immigrants account for almost 14% of the U.S. population.
Immigrants’ share of the country’s population has risen steadily since about 1970 and is approaching the record high of 14.8% set in 1890, according to Pew Research. And with higher percentages come larger levels of economic clout.
The Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., indicated in a report published in late 2019 that U.S. economic output is higher when more immigrants are included in the workforce. And one estimate cited by Brookings suggested foreign-born workers contribute about $2 trillion annually to U.S. gross domestic product.
Immigrants in Kansas, therefore, are contributing to the country’s economic productivity but also to the state’s.
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Hugh Cassidy, a labor economist and assistant professor at Kansas State University, said it is difficult to come up with one overarching dollar amount that illustrates immigrants’ total economic impact in Kansas.
“We have this thing called the economy, and it’s massive and incredibly complicated and has many different characteristics and facets,” Cassidy said. “So if we want to look at the effects of immigration, we need to think about what we’re actually trying to measure.”
He indicated a single number like gross domestic product may not always be the most important figure to cite.
“There are a large number of effects,” he said.
Impacting the Kansas workforce
Some impacts of immigration are directly related to the state’s workforce.
According to numbers provided by Cassidy, immigrants in Kansas comprise 7.3% of the state’s population but are slightly overrepresented in the workforce, as they make up 9.7%.
Though not true for all immigrants in the state, many tend to be concentrated in “very typical occupations for immigrants,” Cassidy said, with such employment largely driven by educational attainment.
“Southwest Kansas, as you probably know, is a large meat-packing, meat-processing area,” Cassidy said. “About 50-60% of meat workers in Kansas are immigrants, so that’s an occupation that is heavily immigrant dominated. That’s not something you’re going to see nearly as much in other states.
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“But in general,” he added, “we have immigrants disproportionately represented in kind of similar occupations to other parts of the country. They’re much more likely to be things like butchers. Fifty-five percent of roofers in Kansas are immigrants. Thirty-five percent of housekeepers are immigrants. About 40% of painters are immigrants.”
But just as they are represented at high rates in jobs that require low levels of education, Cassidy said, immigrants also make up a significant portion of the state’s highly skilled workforce — indicating immigrants are concentrated at the lower and upper ends of the educational-attainment spectrum.
“We have immigrants represented highly in physicians, so 20% of physicians in Kansas are immigrants,” he said. “Medical scientists — about half of them are immigrants. One-third of chemists are immigrants. About 30% of electrical engineers (are immigrants).”
Cassidy challenged the perception that immigrants take jobs from native-born workers or do jobs that natives don’t want to do.
“Economists don’t like thinking in those terms for different reasons,” he said.
He said it is possible immigrants participating in the workforce may increase competition for some jobs in the short term. But in the long run, businesses and workers adapt.
He said some jobs might not exist without immigrants, and as they participate in the economy, they boost demand for goods and services, which may result in new employment opportunities for native-born workers.
“Immigrants buy things, too,” Cassidy said. “They have demands for housing and food and things like that, and that increases the demand for stuff that non-immigrants provide. So there are both shifts in supply and demand.”
Immigrants may also create jobs directly by starting their own businesses.
When it comes to the argument that immigrants do jobs native-born workers don’t want to do, Cassidy said there’s more to it.
“The question really isn’t, ‘Will non-immigrants not do these jobs?’ but it’s the wage at which they’re willing to do them,” he said. “It’s easier and a lot more accurate to say immigrants tend to be willing to work for lower wages.”
No matter the occupation or wage an immigrant may accept, they still contribute to local and federal economies by paying taxes — payroll, sales, property taxes, etc. — “just like any other working member of society, of the state,” Cassidy said.
Other notable effects
But immigrants in Kansas often have peripheral effects on the state and its economy, as well.
For one, immigrants bring their food and culture with them as they move, expanding the state’s cultural diversity.
Those taking their oaths of citizenship at the May 25 ceremonies in Topeka, for instance, came from such countries as Algeria and Togo in Africa, Israel and Syria in the Middle East, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Asia, and Hungary and the United Kingdom in Europe.
“What we say in these ceremonies … is bring your culture, religion, your food, your ethnicity here to the United States, and we’ll celebrate with you,” said Debbie Cannon, public affairs officer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “You don’t have to leave any of that behind.”
Immigrants also help grow the state’s population.
According to reporting earlier this year by The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kansas saw a growth rate of 3% over the past decade, according to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data — the smallest growth the state has seen since the 1910 Census. The state’s population now sits at about 2,937,880, meaning it ranks 35th in the nation for population size.
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“In a state like Kansas … we’re low in terms of our growth rate,” Cassidy said. “Immigrants are a source of growth that Kansas wouldn’t otherwise have.”
According to data pulled from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ website, 946 people immigrated to Kansas in fiscal year 2020 and 1,193 people immigrated to the state in fiscal year 2019.
“They choose Kansas … for a number of reasons,” Cassidy said. “They don’t accidentally stumble into Kansas and then find a job. They choose to locate where presumably, for a number of reasons, they think they’ll be happiest — better work and family and so forth.”
And if immigrants choose to remain in the state long term, perhaps even starting families in Kansas, the economic impacts they have on the area may multiply.
That is the case for Ng and Tan, two of the immigrants who became citizens late last month in Topeka.
“We have two kids,” Ng said. “We want to continue to raise them here in Kansas. I think Kansas has better education, colleges for the kids, more opportunity to grow.”