Immigrants are a crucial talent pool to keep Washington’s many industries — from tech to agriculture — competitive in an increasingly global economy.
WASHINGTON state is a great place to call home, and with good reason. Business is booming and neighborhoods are vibrant. Much of this, in large part, is because immigrants and refugees are setting down new roots and making vital contributions to grow our economy and workforce while strengthening communities across the state.
A new report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, “The Contributions of New American in Washington,” details what we already know to be true: Immigrants are essential to our economic growth and are adding to diversity in communities we call home. It’s a refreshing and fact-based analysis that counters much of the misguided national rhetoric about immigrants and immigration.
Immigrants have always been a driver of the American dream, from the founding of our nation to present day. Nearly 1 million of Washington’s residents are foreign-born, making up more than 13 percent of the total state population and 17 percent of the overall Washington workforce.
Immigrants are an integral part of business growth in many ways. Some of Washington’s biggest industry names — Costco, Boeing, Nordstrom, Amazon and Weyerhaeuser — were founded by an immigrant or a child of an immigrant.
Eighteen percent of all businesses in Washington are owned by immigrants. More than 70 percent of immigrants are between the ages 18 and 64 — prime working age — and are 33 percent more likely to be actively employed compared to an aging U.S.-born workforce in Washington. Immigrants are a crucial talent pool to keep Washington’s many industries — from tech to agriculture — competitive in an increasingly global economy.
The education and skills of immigrants and refugees are becoming increasingly diverse. Since 2010, there are now more high-skilled immigrants than low-skilled immigrants. Foreign-born adults age 25 or older hold college degrees from foreign universities at comparable rates to U.S.-born residents, with immigrants more likely to hold advance degrees than native-born residents. Immigrants are employed in many industries across the state, from farm work or leading innovations in software development and breakthroughs in biotech or research.
A robust Washington economy relies on having enough workers to keep pace with demand. Yet worker shortages are present all across the state for many employers.
Agriculture, which accounted for $7.5 billion of Washington’s 2014 gross domestic product, is struggling to find the number of workers needed to harvest crops ready to go to market. With Congress failing to act on comprehensive immigration reform, agricultural employees are growing more dependent on the H-2A visa system. But leaders in Washington’s agricultural industry often cite this program as too expensive or burdensome to meet industry need, while immigrant advocates argue that the guest-worker model falls short of providing migrant and native workers with adequate worker protections.
STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) industries will likely see 800,000 new jobs nationally through 2024, but the current skills gap indicates there is one qualified worker for every 7.2 job openings. This mismatch could dampen economic growth. Foreign-born Washington workers account for 24 percent of the STEM workforce, often bringing needed cultural competencies and linguistic skills desired by their employers. However, outdated immigration laws and caps on the number of available H1-B visas make it difficult for employers to recruit in-demand foreign-born workers.
International students attending universities here in Washington also find it hard to grow roots here. Rather than allowing them to contribute to our economy, current laws force them to leave and take their skills, innovative ideas and entrepreneurial business concepts with them.
What we need is comprehensive immigration reform that reflects the needs of businesses, industries and the communities that immigrants contribute to. Immigrants and refugees often overcome numerous language and cultural barriers to make important contributions to Washington’s economy.
It’s time to recognize the contributions that immigrants bring to Washington state, and reject shortsighted political posturing that threatens to weaken our economy. The case for humane, common-sense immigration reform has never been more clear nor timely.