Skip to content

Are immigrants good for the economy?

Illustration by Hannah Moore

Communities and nations that are welcoming to immigrants are more likely to realize the benefits of immigration. This should go without saying. But Luis Dau, a Northeastern professor of international business and strategy, believes it is important to keep saying it.

Luis Dau is an associate professor of international business and strategy, and associate fellow of the Center for Emerging Markets. File photo

“If you say, ‘Immigrants are not good for us, we don’t need them,’ then they really are not going to be useful,” Dau says of the economic impact. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Immigration has become a polarizing topic in the United States and around the world.

 A recent Northeastern-Gallup poll of Americans, Canadians, and residents of the United Kingdom found ideological discrepancies when more than 10,000 respondents were asked to gauge whether immigration causes job losses in their country. 

The divide was especially pronounced in the U.S. Among Americans who identify as “very conservative,” 69 percent believe immigration is a “major threat” to their jobs; for Americans who are “liberal” or “very liberal,” however, the numbers plummet to three percent and one percent, respectively.

In the U.K. and Canada, immigration is also seen as a threat to jobs by conservatives—though at lesser rates than among conservatives in the U.S.

The issue is so divisive that Dau wonders aloud if he should even be discussing it in this interview. 

A paper that Dau co-authored shows that a welcoming approach to immigration leads to increases in entrepreneurial activity. Unexpected opportunities are created when locals are receptive to immigrants and their new points of view. Ideas are exchanged. Businesses are launched. Immigration transfuses and rejuvenates the economy.

“I feel like society has a very limited memory,” Dau says. “I don’t know if we teach these issues well enough; or, instead, if we have to suffer through something and feel the pain in order to understand it.”

Dau was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the region that he says is proudly known for creating tequila and mariachi. He misses it terribly. He has lived in the United States for 14 years, including these last nine in Boston while working at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

He scrolls through his laptop until his fingertips arrive at a slide from a course he teaches, “International Business and Global Social Responsibility.” The graph shows immigration plummeting in advance of, and throughout, the Great Depression.

After huge numbers of immigrants helped fuel the American economy at the turn of the 20th century, a change in policy was enforced by the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which banned or restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe as well as Japan. Researchers have found that the immigration quotas had a negative impact on manufacturing.

Then came the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, passed by the House of Representatives months before the 1929 stock market crash, which damaged American productivity as other countries reacted with tariffs of their own. 

One century later, Dau joins many economists and business leaders in worrying that the ongoing United States trade war with China will cause harm to the American economy.

“I never thought this was going to happen again,” Dau says of the protectionist policies of tariffs and curtailed immigration. “I do think it’s important to have processes where you’re ensuring that people with serious criminal records are not coming in. You need to consider those aspects, to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives.”

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

Cookies on Northeastern sites

This website uses cookies and similar technologies to understand your use of our website and give you a better experience. By continuing to use the site or closing this banner without changing your cookie settings, you agree to our use of cookies and other technologies. To find out more about our use of cookies and how to change your settings, please go to our Privacy Statement.

Like what you see? Sign up for our daily newsletter to get the latest stories right in your inbox.