WASHINGTON – MS-13 gets a lot of press and airtime, thanks in part to a president who often talks about the vicious Salvadoran-American gang as he pursues his agenda of reducing immigration.
Meantime, America's mainstream immigrants, who outnumber MS-13 gang members by about 4,369 to 1, toil away in anonymity in hotels in Buffalo, in meat-packing plants in Kansas, in sleek offices in Silicon Valley and everywhere in between.
Those people, in their quiet, everyday ways, tell the real, fuller story of immigration in America – which is one of immigrants working hard and creating jobs. In fact, several recent studies show immigrants are boosting the economy from bottom to top.
Before we look at those studies, though, it's best to begin with a look at some other numbers, lest we think the nation is being overrun by a criminal gang.
It's hard to say for sure, but it seems the best estimate of the number of MS-13 gang members puts the number at about 10,000. Meantime, there are 43.7 million immigrants in America, of which about three quarters arrived here through legal means.
Do the math: Subtract 10,000 from 43.7 million, then divide by 10,000 and you'll find that immigrants who are not members of MS-13 outnumber those who are by 4,369 to 1. Strip away the nation's 11.3 million undocumented immigrants, and you'll see that those who came to America through legal means outnumber MS-13 members by about 3,239 to 1.
So what are America's 32.4 million legal immigrants up to?
The research shows that many are working hard and boosting the economy.
Some 24.7 million immigrants were part of the American workforce last year, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they had an unemployment rate of 4.1 percent. That's lower than the 4.4 percent rate for native-born Americans.
Another recent study found that refugees – outcasts from the world's trouble spots who come to America legally, with U.S. government backing – typically become good employees.
New York's left-leaning Fiscal Policy Institute conducted that study with the Tent Foundation, which works to partner businesses and refugees, so it's no doubt the authors come from a pro-refugee point of view.
But its study echoes what I learned through talking to Buffalo-area employers while reporting the 2016 series "From Burma to Buffalo," which told the story of the 8,000 or so refugees who make up the city's largest contingent of newcomers in generations. About a half-dozen local employers who had hired refugees said they proved to be exceptional employees – who, unlike a lot of native-born Americans, passed the drug tests required before they could go on the payroll in the first place.
Researchers for the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Tent Foundation surveyed 26 employers in four different regions: upstate New York, metro Atlanta, eastern and central Nebraska and metro Phoenix. Researchers found that 19 of those employers said their immigrant employees tended to stay on the job longer than native-born Americans do.
"Those employers we interviewed overwhelmingly saw lower turnover rates, and as a natural corollary, saw an expanded recruitment pool," once they started hiring refugees, said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the Fiscal Policy Institute's Immigration Research Initiative.
That's good news for Buffalo, which, according to Kallick's study, welcomed refugees at a higher per-capita rate than any city in the country other than Syracuse between 2007 and 2016.
Of course, immigration critics will immediately argue that these newcomers to America end up shutting native-born Americans out of jobs, but there's some evidence that the opposite is true.
A new study from the National Foundation for American Policy, a D.C.-area think tank, found a slight increase in employment among native-born Americans in states with unusually high rates of immigration.
“The results of the state-level analysis indicate that immigration does not increase U.S. natives’ unemployment or reduce their labor force participation,” wrote Madeline Zavodny, the former Federal Reserve economist who did the study. “Instead, having more immigrants reduces the unemployment rate and raises the labor force participation rate of U.S. natives within the same sex and education group.”
How can that be? For one thing, Zavodny notes that many immigrants work in jobs that Americans are reluctant to take. They clean hotel rooms and slaughter cattle and drive front-end loaders in warehouses, for example, meaning they operate in a different, lower-paid labor market than a lot of native born Americans.
But there's also the fact that immigrants are more likely to start businesses than are people born in the United States. A 2016 Harvard study found that while immigrants constituted about 15 percent of the nation's labor force, they make up about 25 percent of its entrepreneurs.
And while most businesses started by immigrants are small, Google – whose co-founder, Sergei Brin, was born in Russia – is not. Tesla, founded by South African Elon Musk, is not small, and neither is Uber, which was co-founded by Canadian Garrett Camp.
In fact, another National Foundation for American Policy study found that immigrants founded more than half of the 87 American start-up companies valued at more than $1 billion in 2016.
And obviously, tens of thousands of native-born Americans work at those start-ups founded by immigrants.
All of this is important to remember because Trump's immigration crackdown goes beyond railing against MS-13. He's cut the number of refugees coming to America – including the number coming to Buffalo – by more than half.
He's proposed canceling an Obama-era rule that allowed many foreign-born entrepreneurs to remain in America to build their companies.
And perhaps because of the Trump administration's unwelcoming attitude, the number of foreign-born college students – who might just stick around and start companies – is falling for the first time in years.
We'll see, over time, how all this turns out.
But the research would seem to indicate this immigration crackdown will mean fewer hard workers at the lower levels of the labor pool and fewer job-creators at the top.
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Story topics: The Briefing