Immigrants key to health of Md. economy

Op-ed: Federal inaction on immigration reform is damaging the economic potentials of Maryland and the country.

The immigrant story of the American dream is Maryland's story. From the industrial era at the Port of Baltimore to the settlement and growth of Western Maryland, our state has consistently provided a beacon of hope to foreign-born families as a home for the pursuit of a better future. And, for hundreds of years, Maryland's economy has benefited directly as a result. However, this story of prosperity is in jeopardy. As we continue to allow political gridlock to break the engine of a functional immigration system, federal inaction on immigration reform is damaging the economic potential of our state and country.

Today, Maryland is home to approximately 886,000 immigrants. While the foreign-born population represents 14 percent of our state population, immigrants punch well outside of their weight class in the workforce. In our population, about half of the U.S. born residents are of working age, but nearly 74 percent of immigrant residents are of prime working age and filling necessary positions in manufacturing, health care, innovation and more. In order to continue expanding our workforce and growing our economy so that all may prosper, we need to take action on immigration reform.

This is why I want to call attention to a recent report on the economic contributions of immigrants in our state by the Partnership for a New American Economy (NAE). The report is part of NAE's newly launched Reason for Reform campaign, which includes reports on immigrants in all 50 states plus the nation's capital along with events aimed at urging Congress to pass immigration reform. Join me in demanding for action by adding your voice at reasonforreform.org.

The NAE report on Maryland finds that immigrants help fill gaps in our workforce. Where employers struggle to find workers to perform cleaning and janitorial work or maintain landscaping, immigrants help take on those roles. In fact, one state industry that immigrants greatly support is manufacturing, in which immigrants living in Maryland were responsible for creating or preserving more than 37,000 jobs in 2010.

We also rely heavily on foreign-born professionals in our health care system. Maryland is 12th in the nation for highest percentage of immigrant doctors. In 2016, more than one in four physicians in Maryland graduated from a foreign medical school — a good sign that they were born elsewhere. Immigrant health care practitioners made up almost one in four of the state's nurses in 2013, as well as 31 percent of those working as nursing, psychiatric or home health aides. As our state ages and retires, these foreign-born aides will be critical in meeting the increased demand for care at home.

Immigrants are also entrepreneurs in Maryland. In 2014, our state was home to over 62,000 self-employed immigrants whose businesses generated $1.8 billion and employed 125,898 people. Immigrant entrepreneurs have long been an important part of Maryland's economic success story. Lockheed Corporation, which eventually merged with another firm to become Lockheed Martin, the Bethesda-based Fortune 500 defense firm, was originally founded by Allan and Malcolm Loughead, whose father immigrated from Scotland. It is the largest of four Fortune 500 firms in the state, employs 112,000 people globally and brings in almost $46 billion in revenues each year.

These facts and more demonstrate the need for common-sense immigration reform. It is time to put partisan politics aside and recognize that we need an immigration system that helps our economy grow. When we lack the necessary workforce, we lose in big ways: Our businesses cannot expand, cannot create new job opportunities, and are even faced with outsourcing or relocation. There's no reason to reinvent the wheel; we know that a functional immigration system has helped propel Maryland's economy for hundreds of years. Let's stop talking about fixing what's broken. Instead, let's just fix it. Our economic future stands in the balance.

Bill Ferguson, a Democrat, is a Maryland state senator; his email is bill@billforbaltimore.com.

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