GOLDEN: Immigration reform a moral imperative for many, an economic necessity for all

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Colorado has an unusually fast-paced economy. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, our state’s economy has recently been growing consistently at about twice the rate of the rest of the nation. That’s great news — but it means we face some unusual challenges, too, like making sure that our employment pipeline is full of qualified workers. Because the different sectors of the economy are so tightly linked, workforce shortages in one field could lead to problems all across the economic chain.

Of course, there is a simple solution to filling these workforce shortages: immigrants. For decades we have failed to overhaul an immigration system that has not evolved with a changing global economy. America’s needs have shifted and we need immigration laws that match the economic realities of 2016.

Fortunately, Colorado benefits from the presence of a large immigrant population. Most immigrants come to the United States to work, which means that while a large share of Americans are aging into retirement, many immigrants are ready to enter the workforce. Compared with the native-born population, foreign-born Coloradans in the 6th Congressional District are over 20 percent more likely to be of working age than natural born citizens, according to data from the New American Economy (NAE), a bipartisan organization that supports immigration reform benefiting the American economy. Immigrants fill the vital positions in our economy that move us forward.

It’s true that immigrants are major contributors to some of the sectors you might think of first. The 6th Congressional District’s agriculture sector depends on immigration — it supplies about 21 percent of its workforce. But immigrants are also critical to our growing advanced-technology sector. Close to 10 percent of workers in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields in Colorado are immigrants.

Yet, our farmers don’t have a functional H-2A visa program to bring in the labor they need, and for many of those talented Ph.D. students, there is no clear path to stay after graduation. We need an immigration system that helps our economy grow, not one that sends people home after they’ve trained at our universities and fails to provide the workforce that our industries need.

In addition to filling workforce needs, Colorado’s immigrants are big economic contributors as well. According to NAE, immigrant-led households in our district earned more than $3.3 billion in 2014. That same year, these same individuals contributed more than $240 million in state and local taxes, money that gets reinvested into our schools and roads. This is on top of the close to $544 million they paid in federal taxes, contributing to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

So, while immigration reform is a moral imperative for many, it is an economic necessity for all. We need deliberate, thoughtful policies that address the whole spectrum of immigration issues — from ensuring that our businesses can attract and retain the talent they need to grow to providing our farmers the workforce they need to put food on our tables. We should embrace the moment, and I encourage you to visit NewAmericanEconomy.org to learn more about the contributions of immigrants in Colorado. Together, we can realize the new American economy.

Robert Golden is president and CEO of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce.