Shirley Leung

It’s immigrants who make Boston a world-class city

Newton, Ma., 04/10/06, Semyon Dukach, cq, President, CEO of gottaflirt. He was one of the subjects of Ben Mezrich's book "Busting Vegas" about the MIT Blackjack team that won millions in the 1990's, but now he is also a web entrepreneur, blackjack teacher, anti-casino crusader, and a single dad. Shot at his business partner's house. Joe Kahn story. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff. Library Tag 05102006 Living/Arts
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/file 2006
Semyon Dukach, who was a refugee from Russia, arrived in 1979, when he was 10. He has founded and sold companies and become an angel investor, backing more than 100 companies, many of them in Boston and many of them started by immigrants.

With apologies to Dunkin’ Donuts, America runs on immigrants.

Without those who come here seeking a better life, our economy would lose its jolt.

Just for a moment, let’s step away from the pro-immigrant rallies and the lawsuits challenging President Trump’s executive order that restricts entry into the United States by residents of seven countries.


It’s easy for many of us to say we won’t be affected by the travel ban. But we will, very much so, if America’s message to the world is you are not welcome here.

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The real Massachusetts miracle — now I must apologize to Mike Dukakis — is how becoming a global city has made Boston so desirable. The influx of immigrants has and will continue to propel our economy to new heights.

The world’s best and brightest get educated in Boston — whether at Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Northeastern, or the scores of other schools in the region. Over 47,000 international college students are on temporary visas in Massachusetts. If we are lucky, many of them will stay, work, and start companies.

Others come here because they want to train and conduct research at our world-class hospitals. Almost one in four physicians in Massachusetts graduated from a foreign medical school, an indication they were probably born elsewhere, according to a recent report by New American Economy, a bipartisan coalition that works on immigration reform.

The Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association has taken a strong stance against the travel ban because just about every hospital in the state employs foreign-born workers. The association estimates that more than 3,600 hospital employees hold green cards or visas, many of them working at academic medical centers like Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals.


More than a million immigrants call Massachusetts home, making up 15.5 percent of the population, according to the most recent census data, from 2014. Boston itself is even more of a melting pot; about 27 percent of its population was born in another country.

Immigrants contribute to the local economy in other ways, according to the New American Economy report:

 Households they lead earn $36.8 billion, or 15.2 percent of all income earned in Massachusetts in 2014.

 They pay taxes — $3 billion to state and local authorities and $6.5 billion to the federal government.

 They have $27.3 billion in spending power in Massachusetts. Even international college students make a difference, giving the state economy $1.8 billion through tuition payments and day-to-day spending.


 They account for big chunks of many job categories: housekeepers and cleaners (65 percent of those jobs); medical scientists (59 percent); chefs and head cooks (44 percent); software developers (35 percent); doctors and surgeons (34 percent); and manufacturing workers (34 percent).

Trump says he ordered the travel restrictions to block potential terrorists from the seven countries, including Syria and Iran, which have majority Muslim populations.

But Trump also ran on a campaign appealing to fears that an influx of immigrants — legal and illegal — is taking jobs from Americans born here and creating a burden on social services.

Talk to economists, and they will tell you we’re being presented with alternative facts (apologies, Kellyanne Conway). Foreign-born workers, for the most part, aren’t taking jobs from the native population. In many cases, they’re filling a void where employers can’t find enough Americans to hire.

Long term, immigrants are a net positive to the US labor force and economy, but their impact on municipal finances varies state by state, according to a report last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. In Massachusetts, a study coauthored by economist Alan Clayton-Matthews determined that immigrants don’t eat up more than their fair share of local services.

But Massachusetts, with its aging population, is in particular need of immigrant workers as employers struggle to hire with an unemployment rate of 2.8 percent.

“We need a younger labor force, and immigration is one way to get that,” said Clayton-Matthews, who is a public policy professor at Northeastern.

The other thing about immigrants is they like to start businesses.

In Massachusetts, one in five entrepreneurs was born in another country and collectively employ nearly 135,000 employees, the New American Economy study found.

Many of these businesses are small — think convenience stores, nail salons, and restaurants. But some entrepreneurs make it big. Consider Max and Morris Feldberg, immigrants from Russia who settled here, where they opened a store. They would go on to build a discount retail empire that eventually became TJX Cos., the parent of T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, and Home Goods.

Or Semyon Dukach, who was a refugee from Russia, arriving in 1979, when he was 10. He came to Boston two decades ago for graduate school at MIT in computer science. He has since founded and sold companies and become an angel investor, backing more than 100 companies, many of them in Boston and many of them started by immigrants.

“Immigrants tend to make great entrepreneurs. They have been through hard times. They struggle. They can find their path in an unfamiliar environment,” Dukach said.

Dukach found himself so angered by Trump’s executive order — which also temporarily halts refugees from any country — that he rushed to Logan Airport Saturday night to protest. He also went to the Copley Square demonstration the next day.

For Dukach, we need secure borders, but we also need to keep immigrants coming because that’s what has fueled our boom. He understands why some people in this country who have been left behind want to go in the opposite direction.

“People are hurt and upset. They want to hear some solutions,” he said. “It’s very dangerous to play on their fears.”

But by denying more immigrants the American Dream, Trump may be endangering it for the rest of us.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung.