In Massachusetts, immigration is both history and destiny. Immigrants have been shaping the state’s economy, politics, and culture since the early 1600s when the Pilgrims and the Puritans set up the towns of Plymouth and Boston. The Covid-19 pandemic is illuminating how the contributions of today’s immigrants will shape the Commonwealth well into the future.
Although they are often invisible, immigrants today represent more than 17 percent of the state’s population. In some communities, the number is more than double that. In Dorchester, immigrants account for 56.1 percent of residents.
At a time when birth rates are declining and our overall population is aging, immigrants are our first line of defense against the deep demographic winter facing the Commonwealth. Over the next 15 years, immigrants and their US-born children will represent all net labor growth, according to new research from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).
One area where immigrants play an important role is in the state’s economy. They account for one in five Massachusetts workers and one in four entrepreneurs, and they contribute $36.4 billion in consumer spending and $4.5 billion in state and local taxes every year, according to the American Immigration Council.
Another is the state’s higher education system, which is deeply connected to our innovation-based economy. The aforementioned demographic patterns are hurting enrollment and creating an existential crisis for many colleges and universities. The pandemic and its wake of economic destruction is expected to drive down enrollment even further.
Again, immigrants are providing welcome news. The number of US-born adults with immigrant parents is projected to more than double between 2015 and 2035, and now accounts for 28 percent of all college students. (UMass Boston, home to thousands of immigrant-origin students, plays a unique role in the Commonwealth: most of our students will stay, live, and work in Massachusetts after graduation, becoming an integral part of our labor force.)
The pandemic has revealed the extent to which immigrants form the backbone of our health care system. If you are being treated for Covid-19 in the US, there is a nearly one in three chance that you will be seen by an immigrant physician, according to MPI. If you or a loved one needs a home health aide, there is a 40 percent chance that person will be an immigrant. One in six nurses working on the front lines is an immigrant, according to the Brookings Institution.
Even before the pandemic, immigrants were filling essential jobs that support every facet of our existence. They care for the sick, for people with disabilities, for older adults, children and babies. They deliver our food and work in our factories and warehouses and throughout the supply chain. They teach our children and make our higher education system the envy of the world. Since 2000, they have been awarded nearly 40 percent of the Nobel Prizes won by Americans in Chemistry, Medicine and Physics.
And they are doing all of this despite numerous obstacles, from disproportionately high rates of Covid infections and deaths to xenophobic and racist rhetoric coming from some quarters of society.
The data show that when given the chance, immigrants take up an American identity, gravitate toward cultural norms and embrace the English language – and improve the levels of education, occupational diversity, and income in their communities.
That’s good for them – and for everyone else. After all, their future is our future.
Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco is Chancellor of UMass Boston and an immigrant from Argentina.