The Value of Immigrants to the United States. Part 9 of the Welcoming the Stranger Series

What effects do people like Guillermo, who come to the United States to pick our produce for a low hourly wage, have on the overall economy? Does immigration hurt the American worker? Are foreign workers even needed? What about the costs of providing education, healthcare, and other public services to these people? Can our country afford to welcome so many immigrants? Could we afford not to have them here?

From a Christian perspective, these questions ought not to be primary: the scriptural witness is that we are to care for the immigrant stranger living among us, without any caveat that exempts us from this responsibility if it is not in our individual or national economic interest. Furthermore, immigrants contribute much to our society that is not easily quantified, and we err if we reduce the immigration dilemma to one of mere mathematics. God created and delights in cultural diversity, and immigrants have added richly to our communities through their different cultures. Nevertheless, economic considerations are among the most common concerns raised in the ongoing immigration debate in our country, and they need to be addressed. – Soerens and Yang (2018) in, “The Value of Immigrants to the United States,” Chapter 7 in Welcoming the Stranger, p. 124.

migrants harvesting of grapes photo

Mexican labour. Photo by sillydog

We continue engineering professor Royce Francis’s Monday series on immigration, partly inspired by Royce’s attendance at the InterVarsity Northeast Retreat in 2017. Royce is also training to run a half marathon in support of World Relief, and today’s post includes a training update for those of you following Royce’s progress in that endeavor. If you’ve started reading more recently, or just want a refresher, you may enjoy browsing the series to date. You can also explore Rocye’s Masterclass series on writing here.

Chapter 7 Summary

Chapter 7 deals in detail with the economic value (or costs) of immigrants to the United States. I appreciate that Soerens and Yang do not make economic claims central to their book, but I also appreciate that they have examined some of the most common economic claims related to immigration. The quote above indicates some of the questions explored in Chapter 7:

  • Do immigrants hurt the economy?
  • Do immigrants hurt American workers?
  • Do immigrants cost taxpayers?

It can be tempting to look at this topic only through the lens of costs, but in the excerpt above, Soerens and Yang also hold out the possibility that immigrants are indispensable and that it may not be possible to measure the true value of immigrants to the nation. Could we afford not to have them here? Would we be the nation that we are if they were not here?

In the first section of the chapter, they discuss the economic aspect of immigration. As acknowledged earlier on in Chapter 3, peaks in immigration have often happened during periods of fundamental economic change in the country, helping us through these economic transitions:

At the height of the great wave of immigration around the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was turning from an agricultural society into a manufacturing economy, and many immigrants fled poverty and came to the United States to work in newly formed industries. The same questions about whether immigration was beneficial to the United States were asked then, and immigration restrictions eventually followed as the general public increasingly felt that immigration was not in their economic interest. [Soerens and Yang, p. 125]

Although we now know that over the long term, immigration has been beneficial to the United States, these questions are being raised today in an era of globalization. In addition, Soerens and Yang point out that the only growth in the working age population of adults in the United States in the coming years will result from immigrants and their descendents. One other labor market note I found interesting was the need for immigrants to increasingly fill skilled jobs that do not require a high degree of formal education.

While immigrants do, on balance, benefit the country, the costs and benefits are not equally shared throughout the US. One disproportionate effect is on governmental expenses. While most immigrants pay federal taxesdocumented and undocumentedthey are often not eligible for most federal benefits. In this way, federal benefit programs are heavily subsidized by the contributions of immigrants. At the same time, immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, increase expenses for the state and local governments. They must still be treated at a hospital in an emergency, they still use police/fire/municipal services, and the children of undocumented immigrants are eligible for public primary and secondary education. Thus, while documented and undocumented immigrants are both likely to pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits from state and local governments, the burdens they place on local governments in the short run may make it difficult for local communities to feel the benefit of increased immigration.

The economic impact of immigrants on native-born workers is more difficult to tease out. On the one hand, without immigrant labor some businesses would need to move from the United States. On the other hand, while some economists do believe that undocumented immigrants depress the wages of unskilled native-born workers, immigrants can stimulate wage growth through entrepreneurship and technological innovation. Nonetheless, the possibility of a slight negative economic impact of immigration on native, low-skilled workers is an important concern that policy makers must wrestle with.

On the issue of whether immigrants compete with or complement native-born workers, Soerens and Yang remind us that the economy is not a fixed-sized pie. Immigrants do not take a slice out of the pie, they enlarge it. Also, immigrants often complement native workers due to differences in relevant experiences and preparation. This complementarity provides opportunities for immigrants to create businesses in niches.

There are also interesting sections on the “Global Dynamics of Immigration” and “The Value of Cultural Diversity.” For example, in the “Global Dynamics of Immigration” section, Soerens and Yang discuss the global nature of the migration crisis currently faced by many countries. Many of the same concerns and issues being faced by the United States are being faced, in some cases much more intensely, by other nations due to the growing economic inequality and demographic differences between nations, regional economic liberalization and trade relationships, and internal displacement due to development and disruptions to traditional lifestyles. These forces are inescapable and outside the control of government. Many countries, including our own, have national immigration policies that do not reflect global realities of economic and social forces that will continue to drive people across borders.

The chapter concludes by acknowledging that we as Christians must address the question of immigration—benefits and costs notwithstanding—outside of strict market considerations:

Our tendency may be to think that we should welcome immigrants only so long as they benefit our financial situation, but this attitude is hard to reconcile with Scripture. After all, the many commands of God to the Israelites to welcome immigrants did not focus on their economic contributions but on emulating the character of God. And Jesus’ overarching command to love our neighbors does not apply only if particular neighbors will contribute to our affluence. Immigrants, on the net, are a positive economic force, but Christians would be called to welcome them even if they were not. [Soerens and Yang, p. 149]

Let me be clear, Soerens and Yang most certainly don’t advocate for a policy of open borders. However, the position of the authors seems to be that Scripture’s commands to welcome the stranger are so strong that we should welcome immigrants regardless of the cost and trust God to provide for the needs of ourselves and others.

Key Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think God’s instructions to “welcome the stranger” trump any negative effect that immigrants might have on the economy? Why or why not?
  2. How does recognizing that immigration is a global issue—not just something that is impacting the United States—affect your thinking about this topic?


Over the last few weeks, I’ve provided several long summaries, so I’ll keep my reflection short—at least until next week when Soerens and Yang discuss “Immigration Policies and Politics” in a thoroughly updated chapter 8 . . . 

This chapter was difficult to review, for reasons related both to its content and to major shifts in demands on my time as the semester has started. This week, my students will be taking their first exam in one of my courses, and here in Baltimore the first days of fall have been accompanied with a very noticeable drop in temperatures. I love fall, but this year I was sick as the fall season came in. Even with all of the distractions, I’m continually reminded that immigrants are everywhere present and everywhere hidden at the same time. And although this chapter is, on the surface, about the economic value of immigrants to the United States, recent events and movements in my life have reminded me about the immeasurable ways that immigrants have enriched my life and our nation.

First off, while immigrants may have a short-term negative effect on the economy, their children will be citizens who directly contribute to our nation economically and culturally. My wife and I had the privilege this week of hosting a group of InterVarsity students from a local university in our home for dinner and fellowship. Although the students were not selected from the InterVarsity international student group on that campus, every one of the students were from families whose international roots were still reflected in their names, diction, the types of food we discussed, and cultural traditions such as marriage ceremonies. As my wife and I reflected on our visit with them, we thought about how we wanted our own children to resemble these men and women in many ways. We thought about their future careers. And we also thought about their futures in Christ.

Even if at my work at GW I am not directly engaged in traditional Christian ministry, I am aware that many of my students are international students. Many of the undergraduates I teach are domestic, but descendants of recent arrivals to the United States. I often look around at my GW students and try to imagine the ways that they have come to this place in their lives that we now share together. I never imagine thinking of any of my students in economic terms or how they can become assets to our nation. In my work, I assume that every one of my students will do profoundly good things that will enrich our lives and our communities. I do, however, hope that if any of them do become exceptionally wealthy, that they would provide an endowed chair for me to work from.

At the same time, though I interact with, and am influenced by, immigrants every day of my life, I know that many lives will never be recognized or brought into the light. When I was visiting Belgium earlier this month, I thought about how migration is a global problem, and how a very large proportion of those who have been driven from their homes may never receive the human rights of citizenship, liberty, or justice. Many who are seeking peace and security may never receive peace and security, while many who are seeking freedom of conscience may never experience that freedom. Even here at home, I am reminded of the many ways that being undocumented restricts one’s life and keeps people in the shadows. For example, my wife and I have been looking for different ways to serve our local church, and one of the things we considered requires a background check and driver’s license. Because of the required documentation, this opportunity for Christian service would be out of reach for many undocumented people. In important ways that may be invisible to many of us who are not undocumented, the logistics of modern ministry keeps many people in the shadows.

Thank you so much for your patience with me, and your willingness to engage with this important issue. In some ways, our politics and news cycles have moved on from immigration, but I pray that you have been able to prayerfully consider many of the arguments and ideas that Soerens and Yang have brought together in Welcoming the Stranger. If you have not bought your own copy to read their words for yourself, you can find it from InterVarsity Press at this link.

Peace and Blessings.


PS—Training Updates. I know I haven’t given a training update in some time, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been training or keeping my personal training notes. A few highlights:

  1. On Monday last week (just under 5 weeks until race day), I ran my first 2 hour long run. This is the first time in well over two years that I have run that long. I wasn’t too happy with the pace, and it took me two attempts within three days of one another (Fri/Mon) to pull it off. I’m still very excited about it and hope I can build on that this week. I’m excited, but know that I’ll need to build the volume a little bit more before I’ll feel fully prepared for the half.
  2. My calves and feet are finally adjusting to the training, and my body weight is approaching my previous race weight. My feet and calves seem to have responded well to some new conditioning exercises I’ve included in this training block, including calf raises and jump roping into my conditioning, and since I’ve had a long training block that has been relatively(!) free from injury, my body is starting to respond to the training.
  3. I was pretty sick this past week, and so I didn’t run anywhere near as much as I probably should have. Because it has been almost two years since I’ve been running for months at a time, I have absolutely no idea how this will affect my race.
  4. My track and interval workouts seem to indicate that my natural race pace will decrease, and so I still haven’t set a specific time goal. Since I’m working back into running, I don’t select workout paces in advance, but go by feel based on a desired intensity. The last half-marathon paced workout I ran, 2x3mi ending up around 8:30-8:40 or so per mile, gave me a bit more confidence that I should be able to run the half under 2 hours in 5 weeks or so.
  5. My goal this week is to hit a long run between 13-15 miles. If I am successful there, I’ll aim for 13 or 12/ and 10 mile longer runs in the weeks before the race.
  6. I’ve been shocked by how afraid I have been to push myself this time through. I’ve never felt the mental battle as much as I have in this training block. This time around, these workouts have really gotten to my mind. They are really frightening, to the point where I’m finding myself hesitating to put my shoes on and go out the door. I’m actually afraid of how difficult they are. I don’t know what to say about that or what that means…
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Royce Francis

Royce is an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at the George Washington University. He conducts and teaches under the broad theme “SEED”: Strategic [urban] Ecologies, Engineering, and Decision making. His research and teaching interests include infrastructure sustainability and resilience measurement, risk analysis, and drinking water systems analysis. Royce is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA).

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