Business & Tech

MIT study: Immigrants vital to Boston’s economy

In February, Modelo’s Market Cafe in Somerville was among businesses that closed to draw attention to the number of immigrant workers.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff/file
In February, Modelo’s Market Cafe in Somerville was among businesses that closed to draw attention to the number of immigrant workers.

At hotels, nursing homes, and restaurants in and around Boston, roughly half the workforce is made up of immigrants. Among doctors, scientists, and software engineers, a third were born in another country.

Greater Boston’s economy relies on immigrants much more heavily than the country as a whole. And with the city’s unemployment rate at less than 4 percent and foreign-born workers providing nearly all the growth in the labor market in recent years, a continued stream of immigrant workers is essential for the local economy to thrive, according to a report out Thursday by MIT researchers that provides a detailed breakdown of who these local immigrants are and where they work.

President Trump’s clampdown on immigration could have serious consequences on Boston-area employers, local workforce development and business leaders say, and some are calling for more liberal immigration policies to fuel the region’s economic growth.

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Among 25- to 64-year-old workers in the Boston area, 27 percent were born in another country, according to the MIT analysis, compared to 18 percent of the country’s overall workforce. Forty-one percent have college degrees, and the majority have been in the United States for more than a decade. They are concentrated both in highly skilled positions in technology and medicine, and in lower-wage service jobs in the hospitality and health care fields.

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In 2015, more than half the working-age people moving to the Boston area were immigrants, according to the MIT analysis.

“It’s very hard to imagine our economy succeeding without immigration,” said Paul Osterman, the MIT management professor who conducted the study, based on census data. “Increased restrictions are a threat to our prosperity. Indeed, the economy would be strengthened if immigration increased from its present level.”

Jewish Vocational Service, which educates and provides skills training for many immigrants in Boston, commissioned the MIT report in the wake of Trump’s executive orders restricting immigration from a number of Muslim-majority countries to highlight the role of immigrants in the local economy.

Many key industries such as health care and restaurants have labor shortages, said JVS president Jerry Rubin, and with the native-born population remaining relatively flat, the demand for bilingual workers soaring, and a large number of workers reaching retirement age, immigrants are essential to keep the economy from “grinding to a screeching halt.”

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Giving undocumented immigrants a path to legal working status is one way to address the issue, Rubin said: “If there were the opportunity to have this latent talent pool opened up, I think it would be enormous for the region’s economic growth.”

The census data include undocumented workers, although they are thought to be undercounted by between 5 and 7 percent.

Of course, many disagree that immigration policies should be eased.

Boston and other cities with low population growth and the ability to attract highly educated immigrants are unique and do not point to a need for more immigrants nationwide, said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington research nonprofit that favors limiting immigration.

Census data show that immigrants have higher poverty rates and rely more on public assistance than native-born residents, he said. And even though the unemployment rate has dropped back to prerecession levels, wages have stagnated and more people are working part time or have dropped out of the workforce altogether, which doesn’t show up in unemployment figures, he said.

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In Boston, where people of color make up the majority of the city’s population, immigrants have been the primary source of growth in the labor force over the past few decades. Following immigration reform in the 1960s, the number of foreign-born workers in the city tripled between 1980 and 2010, to 116,111, while the number of native-born workers grew by just 4 percent, to 246,735, according to Marilynn Johnson, a Boston College history professor and author of “The New Bostonians: How Immigrants Have Transformed the Metro Area since the 1960s.”

‘It’s very hard to imagine our economy succeeding without immigration.’

Immigrants from Caribbean countries make up the largest group of the Boston area’s foreign-born residents, accounting for 15 percent of the population. People from Europe, South America, and China and Taiwan also constitute big portions of the area’s immigrants.

Immigrants were key to Boston’s revitalization during this period, Johnson said, as manufacturing declined and the service- and knowledge-based economy took off. Some of the recent growth in the native-born labor force is also due to immigration, she noted, as the children of immigrants grow up and start working.

Magdalena Lemoine-Clerdonna left Haiti for Boston three decades ago and now works in human resources for the Spaulding Rehabilitation Network. Her oldest son is getting his master’s degree in occupational therapy and will soon be entering the workforce, possibly at Spaulding. Lemoine-Clerdonna and her eight siblings living in the United States all have bachelor’s degrees, she said, and several of their children have advanced degrees.

The Boston-area health care sector is heavily reliant on immigrants, who make up 29 percent of hospital staffs and 53 percent of home health aides, according to the MIT report. Spaulding, for instance, employs many immigrants, from janitors and food service workers to researchers and physicians, said Colleen Moran, director of workforce programs for Spaulding, and they are high-caliber employees.

“People come [to the US] for a reason,” she said. “So they’re willing to do the work to get where they want to go.”

At Logan Airport, 2,700 of 18,000 workers are immigrants, said Thomas Glynn, chief executive of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs the airport, and there are always jobs to fill – as wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers, customer service representatives, and more.

“It’s an entry point for the labor force,” Glynn said. “The fact that there’s a constant influx of folks who are non-US citizens is good.”

James Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, regularly fields calls from employers seeking help with work visas for foreigners, who are sometimes forced to leave the country — and go to work for a competitor. And now the controversial H-1B visa is under further scrutiny, with federal agencies warning in April that they would go after businesses that use the visas to hire skilled foreign workers at the expense of American workers.

“Even before Trump, we said we should staple a visa to every college degree in Massachusetts,” he said.

At the Waltham biopharmaceutical firm Morphic Therapeutic, half of the employees, including Chief Executive Praveen Tipirneni, are immigrants. There is a “war for talent” going on in the industry and loosening immigration restrictions could help, Tipirneni said. But the value of immigrants goes beyond their ability to do a job. In order to innovate, we need more disruptive thinkers, he said, something that comes naturally for people from different cultural backgrounds.

“We need people who are able to connect the dots in a very different way,” he said.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.