Are Immigrants the Secret to America’s Economic Success?

When we accuse a politician of dehumanizing some ethnic group, we’re usually being metaphorical. The other day, however, Donald Trump said it straight out: Some migrants are “not people, in my opinion.”

Well, in my opinion, they are people. I’d still say that even if the migrant crime wave Trump and his allies harp on were real, and not a figment of their imagination (violent crime has in fact been plummeting in many cities). And I’d say it even if there weren’t growing evidence that immigration is helping the U.S. economy — indeed, that it may be a major reason for our surprising economic success.

But as it happens, there is a lot of evidence to that effect.

Some background here: When Covid struck, there were widespread concerns that it might lead to long-term economic “scarring.” Millions of workers were laid off; how many of them would either depart the labor force permanently or lose valuable skills? Investment and new business formation fell. It seemed plausible that even after the worst of the pandemic was behind us, America would have a smaller, less productive work force than previously expected.

None of that happened. If we compare the current state of the U.S. economy with Congressional Budget Office projections made just before the pandemic, we find that real G.D.P. has risen by about a percentage point more than expected, while employment exceeds its projected level by 2.9 million workers.

How did we do that? American workers and businesses turned out to be more resilient and adaptable than they were given credit for. Also, our policymakers didn’t make the mistakes that followed the 2008 financial crisis, when an underpowered fiscal stimulus was followed by a premature turn to austerity that delayed a full recovery for many years. Instead, the Biden administration went big on spending, probably contributing to a temporary burst of inflation but also helping to ensure rapid recovery — and at this point the inflation has largely faded away while the recovery remains.

Beyond that, the very surge in immigration that has nativists so upset has played a big role in increasing the economy’s potential.

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