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Moves to Ban Immigration Shortchange Vital Role of Immigrants in America

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Grant Rissler, Brittany Keegan and Saltanat Liebert
September 2, 2020

Over the past two weeks the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions have highlighted immigration as an issue, but in very different ways. Democrats featured a letter to President Trump read by 11-year-old Estela Juarez from Florida sharing the pain caused by her mother’s deportation and nominated Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants, for Vice-President. The Republican convention controversially included a naturalization ceremony as part of its programming and included speakers extolling the construction of border walls during Trump’s first term. Underlying these highly visible elements were differing official policy positions.

Earlier this year, Trump announced a temporary ban on several categories of immigrants, arguing that amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic standstill, United States workers needed protection from immigrants. Leaked transcripts of a call by key Trump advisor Stephen Miller indicate a desire to make the ban permanent.

Trump’s efforts to curb immigration are not new and have been the linchpin of his election campaign. One measure, which took effect on April 23, 2020, blocked American citizens from reunifying with parents, adult children and siblings. This move was consistent with his desire to restrict immigration and shift the focus from family-based to skill-based migration. Another measure, Presidential Proclamations 10014 and 10052, signed in June 2020, banned issuance of visas for temporary workers applying for H-1B, H-2B and L-1 visas.

The United States is the largest destination country for immigrants with over 44 million foreign-born residents—more than in any other country in the world. In 2019, immigrants comprised 13.6% of America’s population. Many of these immigrants work in areas experiencing labor shortages. Rather than an excuse to attack immigrants, our current crisis should be an opportunity to reflect on how vital immigration is to our society’s resilience and how important immigrants are to the healthcare, food and small business sectors.

According to U.S. Census data on healthcare workers compiled by New American Economy (NAE), 16.4% of healthcare workers in the United States (and 14.5% here in Virginia) are immigrants. In Virginia there are 33 open healthcare jobs for every one unemployed healthcare practitioner (compared to 27-1 for the nation). 32.4% of Virginia’s physicians and surgeons are immigrants, alongside 12.7% of our nurses. 74% of immigrant healthcare workers in Virginia are bilingual, providing an incredible resource for communicating with the commonwealth’s diverse populations. While Trump’s current proposal provides an exception for healthcare professionals, ongoing anti-immigrant rhetoric creates barriers for even these highly skilled immigrants.

NAE analysis of census data on the food sector in Virginia shows that 18.3% of food sector workers are immigrants (compared to 21.6% nationwide). Nationally this includes more than one quarter of agricultural and food processing workers, close to half (48.6%) of agricultural field workers, three quarters of those packing food by hand and 16.6% of grocery store workers.

Finally, an analysis by the Commonwealth Institute shows that immigrants make up 34% of “Main Street” business owners, 5% above the national average. The same report notes that in Virginia, three-quarters of grocery stores and two-thirds of gas stations, drycleaning and laundry services were immigrant-owned as of 2013.

Despite the temporary ban, many Americans welcome immigrants. In a 2019 Gallup Poll, 76% of respondents felt that immigration was, overall, a good thing for the country.

Rather than excluding immigrants, we recommend a more inclusive path that welcomes immigrants and embraces and enhances their skills. At a time when the need for trained medical professionals is high, reducing bureaucratic hurdles to licensure and practice for qualified foreign-trained medical professionals would not only help address significant labor shortages in healthcare, but also bring much needed language skills and cultural competency, improving service to many patients and their families.

Missouri, for example, passed a law allowing United States resident or legal resident alien medical graduates who have completed two levels of the United States Medical Licensing Exam but have not started their residencies to work as assistant physicians. In addition, we can enact laws supporting both immigrant and native-born workers in essential jobs such as food service. A bill providing increased hazard pay for essential workers was introduced by Congress, though not yet passed at the time of writing.

As Biden and Trump vie for the presidency, immigration policy will be one of many issues up for debate. As voters, we must decide which candidates’ values most closely align with our own. We must also decide which candidate will be more likely to bring about positive change for our community. In looking at the data, and at past experiences, it seems clear that immigration is beneficial for the United States. By supporting all current (and future) members of our community, regardless of their country of origin we can leverage our strengths, take care of those who take care of us and build sustainable communities together.


Authors: Drs. Rissler, Keegan and Liebert are faculty members within the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. All have conducted research focusing on immigration policy and immigrant integration.

Twitter: @GRissler and @BritKeegan

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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