A recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a rise in the percentage of foreign-born workers in the American labor force and it's a trend that has also been observed in the Natural State.
According to the "Spotlight on Statistics" report by the bureau, from 1996 to 2012, "the total labor force increased by about 21 million and more than half (about 11 million) of the increase was among the foreign born."
A recent study commissioned by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation entitled "A Profile of Immigrants in Arkansas" shows the state lags behind the national immigrant labor force of 15.7%, as reported by the BLS, with immigrants accounting for only about 7% of the Arkansas workforce in 2010, while only representing 5% of the state's overall population which the U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2011 was 128,809 people.
According to Michael Pakko, chief economist and state economic forecaster at the Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, those numbers could continue to increase in the near future if trends continue.
"We are one of the fastest-growing states in immigration population," he said.
But in order to understand the growth, Pakko said one must understand that part of the growth is due to Arkansas starting "from a low base."
According to the Immigration Policy Center, that low base he referred to showed immigrants only accounted for 1.1% of the Arkansas population in 1990, 2.8% in 2000 and 4.4% in 2011, meaning that any growth could appear large in comparison.
The economic impact of the growing immigrant labor force appears to be having a positive impact, according to Pakko and the Rockefeller study.
In 2010 alone, immigrants contributed $524 million in income, sales, property, small business and other taxes to the Arkansas government, the report said.
"This total includes taxes paid directly by immigrants, as well as indirect taxes paid by natives and by businesses were generated by immigrants' economic activity," the report read.
Even though the state reported over half a billion dollars paid in taxes to the Arkansas government by immigrants, the report by the Rockefeller Foundation also reported that expenditures by the state on immigrant households totaled $555 million on items such as education, health care and corrections, resulting in net expenditures of $31 million, or $127 per immigrant.
The report did draw a distinction between the total paid in taxes versus the total expenditures (the fiscal impact) and the total statewide economic impact, which it said totaled $3.9 billion in combined consumer expenditures and tax contributions, resulting in a net economic benefit to the state of $3.4 billion in 2010.
Pakko said when evaluating the fiscal and economic impacts, it is important to look at the complete picture of what the expenditures pay for.
"Some of the costs we're looking at is the cost of educating children," he said. "We never look at educating non-immigrant children as a drain on the future. It's a benefit to the future. I think there's some interpretation issues in how you assess economic cost and benefits to having immigrants in the state."
The Rockefeller study did address the education cost.
"On a per capita basis, immigrants' contributions ($16,300) exceeded the fiscal cost of essential services ($2,300) by $13,900," the report reads. "That is, immigrants generated $7 in business revenue and tax contributions for every $1 the state spent on services to immigrant households – K-12 education, health-care, and corrections – in 2010."
According to the report, the largest expenditure was on education for immigrants' children, "a large majority of whom are U.S.-born citizens."
Attempts to contact groups and elected leaders to speak on the economic and fiscal impacts of immigration in Arkansas were unsuccessful. Secure Arkansas founder Jeannie Burlsworth, whose organization has voiced support for tightening immigration laws in Arkansas, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
Pakko said the changes seen over the last several years will only accelerate in the near term.
"I think with the baby boomers approaching retirement, with so many people dropping out of the labor force, we're going to have to find a younger workforce to fill in the gaps and immigration is one way of approaching that issue."
On Wednesday (Aug. 28), a panel of four state leaders discussed immigration reform as part of a Clinton School of Public Service program.
Jeffrey Hall, Arkansas Farm Bureau Associate Director for National Affairs; Dr. Zulma Toro, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UALR; Dr. Sherece West-Scantlebury, Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation President; and Randy Zook, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/AIA CEO participated.
Hall said that in the agricultural field – which includes row crop farming as well as fruit, poultry and rice production – Arkansas has needs that are different than other states.
"Our needs are different than places like California. We need a new agricultural visa program that would allow some employers and employees some flexibility," he said. "There needs to be a way to apply for 'legal status' for those who are here illegally, particularly in the agricultural business."
Hall clarified that "legal status" did not mean citizenship, but that his group supports a means to making illegal immigrants reach a legal immigrant status for purposes of work.
Toro said that there is a misconception that illegal immigrants are taking all available U.S. jobs and contributing to unemployment rates. She said that while there are low-paying jobs that American workers have tended to avoid, there are also specialized skills sets that foreigners possess that contribute positively to the U.S. economy.
"There is a need for certain skills and knowledge-based jobs that immigrants have that aren't available for current U.S. citizens," she said.
"We need a fresh infusion of immigrant laborers not just on the low end, but on the high end," he said. "We need to staple a green card on every diploma of an immigrant college graduate who is a visa holder."
Zook also said that he talks to state business leaders, particularly in manufacturing, who would like to see immigration rules changed in order to recruit more workers to Arkansas.
"There are several thousand potential jobs that are just not coming to fruition because of the lack of available able-bodied people for those jobs," Zook said, adding that it is "completely bogus" that poultry plants are full of illegal immigrants.
Congress has stalled on its immigration reform debate as the Senate has passed a comprehensive measure and the House is looking at a piecemeal approach with different bills to address border security, knowledge-based workers, and citizenship rules.
An audience members asked the panel if removing the "pathway to citizenship" portion of the debate could unlock the gridlock on immigration in Washington.
West, whose Rockefeller Foundation group spearheaded the recent study, said, "If the pathway to citizenship were taken off the table, would immigration reform pass? Border is such a huge challenge. There are other parts of that bill that require much debate. It's a major factor, but it's not the only factor."
Zook said he thought the issue may stall until after the 2014 elections.
"The House is determined to self-destruct," he said. "I think after the '14 elections, this will likely get more support from Republican House members because the mix will be different."