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Immigrants are an integral part of Oklahoma’s economy. They work in essential industries, create jobs by starting businesses, care for our aging population, and contribute to the public services upon which we all rely by paying taxes. Because of the many ways in which immigrants support our state, increasing Oklahoma’s immigrant population is a crucial way to protect the long-term health and prosperity of our state economy. Oklahoma’s policymakers should make our state more accessible to the country’s foreign-born population by creating a state office of immigrant and refugee affairs, working to retain our international students, and uplifting immigrant contributions to our state and community.
Encouraging immigration shows clear benefits to our state and local communities
In building a home for themselves and their families, immigrants create the very foundations our economy and communities rely on. For instance, immigrants disproportionately work in industries deemed “essential” during the COVID-19 pandemic and account for nearly three-quarters of our agricultural workforce. Immigrants also make up approximately one-fifth of our health care workers, one-quarter of our long-term personal care workers, and one-third of our nursing home housekeeping and maintenance workers. Simply put, immigrants have an outsized role in growing and cooking our food, writing and filling our prescriptions, and caring for our ill and elderly. It is not an exaggeration to say that without immigrants, access to the goods and services we all need to survive would be in a dire state.
In addition to bolstering our essential industries, immigrant entrepreneurs are also job creators within their local economies. In 2007, immigrant-owned businesses employed nearly 30,000 Oklahomans. In 2019, immigrant-owned businesses generated almost $700 million in revenue. In 2013, immigrants were responsible for all of the growth in “main street” business ownership in Oklahoma City, a term that includes grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores, and other businesses that provide essential services to neighborhoods. Immigrants also bring jobs by increasing our state’s population, making Oklahoma a more attractive market for businesses to invest in.
While there is a common misconception that immigrants “take” jobs from native-born workers, exhaustive research has found this to be false. In fact, more immigrants may actually result in higher wages and better labor market outcomes for native-born workers, possibly because U.S.-born workers move to less manual-intensive jobs with higher wages. Immigrants show clear economic benefits to the communities in which they relocate by propping up industries critical to everyone’s health and well-being, creating jobs within their local communities, and attracting businesses to our states.
Immigrants are crucial to Oklahoma’s long-term economic health
While the general economic benefits that immigrants bring to their new home communities are impressive on their own, increased immigration also solves a specific problem threatening Oklahoma’s long-term prosperity. The share of Oklahomans in the labor force is declining, meaning that in coming years, we will have a smaller number of workers supporting a growing number of people, largely because our population is aging. If we want to maintain our current quality of life within Oklahoma, state policymakers will have to find solutions to address the economic repercussions of this long-term trend.
Immigration is a promising antidote to our aging population and declining labor force participation. On average, immigrants are younger than the native-born population and more likely to be employed or looking for work. If more immigrants can be convinced to settle in our state, we can increase the percentage of our population that is ready and able to work to support themselves, their families, and our state community as a whole. An immigrant-friendly policy approach would also dovetail nicely with lawmakers’ calls for “more taxpayers” as Oklahoma’s immigrant population already pays more than $650 million per year in state and local taxes.
Oklahoma’s government can encourage immigration by creating inclusive policies
Only the federal government can directly change immigration law and increase visa quantities, but Oklahoma isn’t powerless to create a welcoming and competitive state that attracts and retains immigrants. Our state legislature has the opportunity to overcome federal gridlock on immigration and craft inclusive policy that will bolster our economy. For instance, our lawmakers can create a state office for immigrant and refugee affairs that focuses on welcoming newcomers, supporting immigrant entrepreneurs, and developing programs and initiatives that increase immigrants’ economic contributions.
States around the country have already created similar offices. The Office of Global Michigan was created in 2014 with the goal of reversing population decline and creating more jobs, and the 2020 Census showed this strategy worked. Immigrants in the state helped buoy population numbers that would have otherwise decreased. Without immigrants, Michigan would have seen lower home values, smaller tax bases, and less business growth. An office similar to the one in Michigan would be a wise investment in our state. Oklahoma’s urban communities may be growing, but rural populations in the state have been declining consistently, with nearly two-thirds of Oklahoma counties losing a combined 69,000 residents in the past 10 years. Attracting more immigrants to the state could offset the population decline in rural areas and revitalize these communities, as has been the case in towns like Guymon, Oklahoma.
Another step Oklahoma can take is to work to retain international students already living and working in the state. Thousands of students from around the world have already chosen to come to Oklahoma to pursue their higher education. During their stay, they contribute millions of dollars to our state and local economy. After graduation, however, many students leave the country because of how difficult it is to stay. Oklahoma can create a program that connects universities to employers to help international students find jobs after graduation and remain in the state to fill critical talent gaps either by using the federal Optional Practical Training program or with their employer’s assistance. Similar programs in other states have proved this approach works, and in one case, the number of international students hired by local companies increased by 80 percent in the four years after the program started.
Finally, one of the most impactful things Oklahoma can do to encourage immigration to the state is simply to change its rhetoric around immigrants. It is important that Oklahoma recognizes that immigrants are an integral part of our communities. Continuing to tout and implement punitive immigration policies damage our economy and create an unwelcome environment for the thousands of immigrants in Oklahoma who have made their home here. For instance, 287(g) agreements in Oklahoma, which deputize participating law enforcement agencies to perform certain functions of federal immigration agents, increased participating city’s administrative costs by millions of dollars and caused a decline in sales tax and local business revenue. Policies that bar certain immigrants from getting their driver’s licenses hamper public safety and limit state revenue, and mandated programs like E-Verify hurt both immigrant and American workers as well as the economy. Oklahoma lawmakers need to uplift our immigrant friends and neighbors, not vilify them.
Immigrants are an indispensable part of Oklahoma and the economy
Increasing immigration to the state will ensure that Oklahoma’s economy remains strong for years to come. Study after study has shown that immigrants generate broad economic gains for everyone in the U.S., both through domestic spending and remittances they send abroad. In our state, immigrants start businesses that employ thousands of Oklahomans, make up a significant portion of our essential workforce, and contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to our state and local governments. Without immigrants, economic hubs like Oklahoma City’s Asian District, Calle Dos Cinco, and Tulsa’s Kendall Whittier neighborhood would not exist. By supporting immigrants and making our state a more attractive place to emigrate to, our policymakers can help make Oklahoma a more prosperous and inclusive place for all of our residents.