Why Are The Only "Acceptable" Immigrants Rich?

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Lest you think America is the only country with immigration issues, on Thursday, the UK Supreme Court ruled that a law concerning an income threshold for people who want to have foreign wives or husbands was lawful. Under the law, Brits with non-EU spouses need to earn a certain amount every year (a little more than $23,000), or their wives or husbands risk deportation. How's that for some fun xenophobic bullsh*t.

As the Australian wife of a British academic (a class of workers who, you may not realize, earn basically pennies), this is personally a pretty terrifying prospect for me. But beyond the immediate anguish, it also raises a question: why are only rich immigrants acceptable, and what's the real economic "cost" of migrants?

The rationale behind the income threshold is that it prevents the foreign spouses from being reliant on welfare. In practice, it means that Brits on the lower end of the income scale are effectively prevented from having foreign spouses who can live in the same country. It's been fought in the courts as denying a basic "right to family life." But there's a wider misconception behind the whole deal: that immigrants are only valuable, and not a "drain," if they come with a large pot of their own money. That, as the numbers demonstrate, is actually a fundamental misunderstanding of how migration contributes to society, so let's get into some analysis.

How The U.S. Immigration System Favors The Wealthy

As it happens, the U.S. immigration system is a little more lax about foreign spouses than the UK one. It also has an income threshold, but if you don't meet it, you can ask other people in the U.S., like relatives or employers, to "sponsor" you to meet the limit. What is obvious, however, is that it is copiously easier to migrate to America with a significant pot of money, and that the system makes specific space for that to happen.

Beyond the income threshold, green card applications alone cost $1,140 unless you're a refugee, an application as a spouse or a fiancé of a U.S. citizen costs $265 to file, and that's before the costs of lawyers or immigration specialists to help with the application itself. It's an intensely expensive process; it's just a fact that moving around isn't a matter for the poor.

There are also special loopholes for the wealthy: the EB-5 Immigrant Investor program, for instance, allows foreign investors who provide a certain amount of investment (between $500,000 and $1 million) that creates American jobs to purchase a green card. While this is a boon for American economies if done correctly, it also makes life incredibly easier for wealthy people who want access to American citizenship, and that raises a question: are already-wealthy immigrants more valuable to America than poor ones?

Why Only Favoring The Wealthy Doesn't Make Sense

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The myth of the American dream is mostly about people who "come in with nothing," for the very good reason that it's the narrative behind some of America's greatest modern immigrant success stories. Sergey Brin, billionaire co-founder of Google, famously turned up to protests against the Muslim ban at airports because he himself was a child immigrant from the USSR. He's at the top of a Business Insider list of migrants (mostly male, interestingly) who came to the U.S. with low capital and even fewer opportunities and proceeded to make fortunes, from the co-founder of Intel to the brains behind WhatsApp. Forbes also cites data that points out that, between 2006 and 2010, 25 percent of all American technology and engineering companies were started by immigrants. They note that over $202 billion in personal fortunes has been made by just 45 U.S. immigrants. That's a whopping economic contribution.

Even if most immigrants don't hit those skyscraper heights, they're certainly not lying around doing nothing. FiveThirtyEight cited statistics in 2016 that note migrant workers participate more in the U.S. workforce than native-born Americans, making up 13.1 percent of the population but 16.4 percent of the workforce, and are more likely than native-born people to start businesses, too. Even refugees, those who truly do come with absolutely nothing, are prone to catching up. While Syrian refugees who've arrived in Canada in the past year are currently facing challenges when it comes to finding jobs, studies of Vietnamese refugees who came to Canada in the 1970s show that they've now got an unemployment rate 2.5 percent lower than the general population. It may take them longer, but they do accumulate wealth eventually, and that helps the economy overall.

No, Immigrants Aren't A Drain On The Welfare System

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One of the biggest prejudices towards already-wealthy migrants and against those with fewer resources is that they'll be a drain on welfare and require public assistance, costing the American taxpayer money. But how true is this data of migrants, really?

The New Republic noted in 2015 that many popular migration studies of welfare in the U.S. blur the data (by classifying "welfare" as receiving free lunch at school, or defining the entire household as an immigrant one if there's just one in it). The OECD's 2013 analysis of the "net direct fiscal position” of immigrants around the world, tallying up their tax and social security payments against what they received in welfare, found that in America the average immigrant household actually contributes around $11,000 to the public coffers. In other words, they put more in than they take out in assistance. The American Immigration Council points out that immigrations, as a general group, actually boost overall wealth, give jobs to native-born Americans, and also lift their wage levels overall, though some lower-skilled native-born Americans are likely worse-off because of competition from immigrant workers.

It seems pretty clear that this is a case of contribution, not taking advantage of a generous system. Are immigrants in this position because they have to have a minimum standard of wealth before they're allowed into the country? Not so much, as I'll now explain.

Even Illegal Immigrants Pay Taxes

If you want to argue that immigrants are obviously adding wealth to the U.S. economy because they need a bit of wealth to migrate anyway, you're ignoring one important factor and political flashpoint: illegal immigrants. And here we come to an intriguing fact. Illegal immigrants pay taxes. Huge amounts of them, in fact.

Estimating just how much illegal immigrants contribute is a tricky business; it's thought to be between $7 and $12 billion, with the higher figure including employer contributions to taxes. This, according to a 2016 look at the issue by Inc, is a massive potential windfall to the American economy; if illegal migrants were given a path to citizenship, they could increase their tax contributions and produce a big payday for the American public purse, something that seems to have escaped the attention of Trump and his cronies.

So what have we learned? Poorer migrants are an asset. Even the poorest can reach great heights, and giving opportunities and helping their business efforts is a better plan for everybody interested in overall wealth and welfare than keeping them out or expelling illegal migrants. Numbers don't lie.