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Opinion: Want to strengthen our manufacturing industry? Pass immigration reform

As Congress resumes its work this month, there are many uncertainties, not least of which is the economy. Our country is still in post-recession recovery mode and some economists project another rough patch this fall that may only be exacerbated by the looming budget crisis and the accompanying debt ceiling fight. Amid these upcoming debates in Congress, it is critical to remain focused on ways to preserve and create more American jobs.

Here, one industry in particular stands out: manufacturing. It is a segment of the economy on which millions of American middle-class jobs depend. But it is also an industry that has undergone dramatic changes over the last half century, with the rise of both global manufacturing operations and the increasing prominence of high-skilled manufacturing. Our economy needs a strong manufacturing industry and our workers need the strong middle-class jobs the manufacturing industry provides.

New research points to an oft-overlooked way to promote manufacturing jobs: enact immigration reform. A new report from Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and Partnership  for a New American Economy (PNAE) shows how immigrants are playing a critical role in driving the U.S. manufacturing industry to create more jobs and to keep existing ones here in America. The research shows that 46 U.S. manufacturing jobs are created or preserved for every 1,000 immigrants who live in a county. In manufacturing hubs across the country, immigrants are adding new skills to allow manufacturing to grow and remain here in America.

Together, the more than 40 million immigrants in America have created or preserved 1.8 million manufacturing jobs nationally.  To put that in context, that means immigrants are responsible for more than one in seven manufacturing jobs that remain in America today. In Los Angeles County, 40 percent of manufacturing jobs would vanish without immigrants.

In fact, in four of the five U.S. counties that have experienced the greatest growth in manufacturing  jobs since 1970, immigration has accounted for a commanding majority of job growth. One of these areas is Harris County, Texas—home to Houston—which has seen an increase of 43,299 manufacturing jobs over the last 40 years. Immigration has been so integral to economic growth there that without it Harris would have actually lost manufacturing jobs during this period.

But the employment benefits of immigration extend far beyond major metropolitan areas. In Buena Vista County, Iowa, for instance, the main source of employment is the meatpacking industry. As of 1980, Buena Vista County had fewer than 1,200 manufacturing jobs and counted about 300 foreign-born residents among its 20,000-person population. In the following two decades, more than 2,000 immigrants moved to Buena Vista County, and the area added nearly 1,700 manufacturing jobs. The recent economic growth in Buena Vista has trickled down to other industries and sparked a wave of local entrepreneurship. This is a story repeated in small towns across the United States.

At the same time, immigrants are making once declining areas more attractive to the U.S.-born population. Our new report finds that for every 1,000 immigrants that arrive to a county, 270 U.S.-born residents move there in response.

As our economy continues to under-perform, Washington has an opportunity—and an obligation—to pursue policies that will help create jobs and put more Americans back to work. Immigration reform is part of the solution and should be a top priority for Congress this fall.

John Feinblatt is the Chief Policy Advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Jason Marczak is the Director of Policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

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