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EDITORIAL: Chicago, a great sanctuary city of immigrants, is anything but ‘full’

President Donald Trump says the United States is "full" and cannot allow the admission of more immigrants. | Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Chicago has always been a sanctuary city, and we’re better for it.

Immigration has been at the core of Chicago’s economic vitality and population growth, and it will continue to be.

More than that, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel said last week, the United States is a sanctuary country. We are a nation of immigrants, and proudly so. A welcoming stance toward immigration is at the heart of our identity, and we trash it at our peril.

That’s what President Donald Trump fails to understand. Or chooses not to understand.

When he attacks immigrants as a bunch of criminals and freeloaders, he’s spreading a lie, and he’s making a more honest conversation about immigration policy — whom to allow in, and in what numbers — impossible.

Trump’s proposal to place “illegal immigrants in sanctuary cities only” is ludicrous and cruel. Immigrants of whatever legal status are not pawns to be used in games against political opponents. The president has, once again, revealed his inability to see immigrants — other than, we suppose, his wife and her parents — as full human beings deserving of compassion and respect.

But if the president thinks Chicago, at the very least, would be horrified by a big new influx of immigrants, he’s mistaken. The city likely would benefit, as it has before.

As a whole, Chicago’s immigrant population accounts for a disproportionate share of local spending and tax contributions, according to an analysis of 2016 data released last September. And though immigrants make up only a fifth of the city’s population, more than a third of its entrepreneurs are foreign-born.

In fact, according to the report by the New American Economy, an immigration advocacy group started by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, immigrants in Chicago in 2016 owned more than 39,000 businesses and were 67.4% more likely to become entrepreneurs than people born in the U.S.

Immigrants were more likely to be holding down jobs than the rest of us. They comprised 24.3% of the city’s workforce in 2016, including 48% of workers in manufacturing jobs and 34.9% in accommodation and recreation jobs. They also were disproportionately represented, at 26.9%, in so-called STEM jobs, which are higher-paying positions on average that require knowledge in science, technology, engineering and math.

And at a time when Chicago and Illinois are wrestling with hundreds of millions of dollars of additional debt and unfunded pension liabilities, the considerable tax payments from foreign-born residents could mean the difference between prevailing or going under.

In 2016, according to the New American Economy study, Chicago’s immigrant population paid $4.4 billion in federal taxes and $1.6 billion in state and local taxes. Immigrants in the city also were less likely, compared with U.S.-born residents, to receive Medicare or Medicaid.

Nationally, the story is much the same: Immigration has been a boon to our nation in endless ways.

Of the 122 Americans who won a Nobel Prize from 2000 to 2018, 34 were immigrants. Four of the five Americans who won the prize in 2016 were immigrants.

Forty-three percent of all Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. Companies founded by immigrants include AT&T, Verizon, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and Goldman Sachs. Companies founded by the children of immigrants include Apple, Ford Motor, Boeing, IBM and McDonald’s.

What’s the right level of immigration, and who should those immigrants be?

Excellent questions. Even a country that has thrived on 250 years of immigration no doubt has its limits. Let’s have that conversation, free of the demonizing.

But where is the evidence that the United States, as Trump says, is “full?”

That’s sure not the case in, say, North Dakota, home to 3.6 million cows but just 760,000 people. And it’s not the case in Chicago, where the number of residents has declined from a high of 3.6 million in 1950 to just 2.7 million today.

On the contrary, Chicago and most Midwestern cities were largely built by immigration. And they suffered mightily when the federal government essentially shut off immigration for three decades beginning in the 1930s.

As Rob Paral, a demographer, concluded in a 2017 study for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs:

“The loss of immigration was a serious blow that contributed to decades-long stagnation and decline in the numbers of residents. Only in the last few decades did immigration populations begin to rebound in the cities, helping to stabilize ongoing loss of natives.”

Chicago has long welcomed immigrants with open arms.

Not just for their sake, but for our own.

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