Nearly 1,500 economists of varied political persuasions signed an open letter to President Donald Trump and congressional leaders asserting the economic benefits of immigration.
The letter, publicized Wednesday and signed by a number of Chicago economists, is meant to demonstrate broad consensus that a smart immigration system can boost growth, jobs and wages in hopes legislators take that into account when crafting policy.
"Immigration is often not thought of as a piece of economics, but it's actually a very powerful potential tool," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the center-right think tank American Action Forum.
Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office as well as chief economist of the President's Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, organized the letter along with New American Economy, a centrist political advocacy group focused on immigration.
While the effort was not a reaction to a specific policy of the Trump administration — which is moving forward with plans to build a wall along the Mexican border and has issued an executive order, currently blocked by a federal judge, to temporarily bar foreign nationals from six Muslim-majority countries and all refugees from entering the U.S. — it comes as the nation focuses on the fate of the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally as well as what the president's "America First" agenda means for legal immigration.
"This has become a hot political debate but it's not a policy debate," said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of New American Economy. "If we get to the point where we're having this policy discussion we want to make sure we have clearly articulated what the vision is for immigration."
The letter's 1,470 signatories include six Nobel laureates, among them Lars Peter Hansen and Roger Myerson of the University of Chicago. Thirty other economic and policy experts from the University of Chicago, Northwestern and DePaul universities and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago also signed.
It was addressed to Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The letter asserts that "immigration is one of America's significant competitive advantages in the global economy" and with proper safeguards is "an opportunity and not a threat to our economy and to American workers."
Among the benefits, according to the letter: Immigrant entrepreneurs start new businesses that hire American workers; immigrants bring young workers to offset baby boomer retirements; they bring diverse skills that help companies grow and increase the productivity of American workers; and they're more likely to work in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and other innovative fields that drive economic growth.
"Immigration undoubtedly has economic costs as well, particularly for Americans in certain industries and Americans with lower levels of educational attainment," the letter says. "But the benefits that immigration brings to society far outweigh their costs, and smart immigration policy could better maximize the benefits of immigration while reducing the costs."
The Chicago metro area has 1.7 million immigrant residents, nearly 18 percent of the population, who in 2014 paid $14.5 billion in taxes and then had another $38 billion left over to spend, according to New American Economy. About 110,013 of them are entrepreneurs.
How positive an economic impact immigrants have on a community depends in part on how welcoming a community it is, according to a new study unrelated to the economists' letter.
In cities with immigrant-friendly environments and policies, increasing diversity drives up wages markedly, according to the study by geographers at the University of Buffalo and Southampton University, published in the journal Economic Geography. In cities with anti-immigrant policies, however, U.S.-born workers get no wage boost with increasing diversity, it found.
Though Trump's tough immigration talk has created unease that immigrants are not welcome, Robbins said that the nation may be in a good position to tackle immigration reform because many people trust that Trump will secure the border.
Smart immigration policy, to Robbins, entails border security, creating a pragmatic path for people who arrived illegally to gain legal status, and modernizing the legal immigration system, whose current framework was set in 1965, to respond to the needs of the economy, Robbins said.
Numerous attempts at such comprehensive reform have failed. Holtz-Eakin said that economics have been undervalued each time.
He was pleased when Trump, during a speech to Congress in February, highlighted a visa system based on economic merit, though the administration has offered no details yet.
Groups in favor of reducing immigration say American workers' wages and job prospects suffer when they must compete with immigrants.
Holtz-Eakin says that concern is misplaced.
"They are already competing with these people, whether they are across the street or across the ocean," he said. "We might as well take advantage of those skills in the U.S. instead of compete with them elsewhere."