By Jim Witte and Josh Tuttle

On opening night of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, ESPN introduced a series of new commercials reviving General Motors mid-1970s “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet” advertising campaign. Going into the 2012 MLB All-Star Game this month, another slogan came to mind: “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Immigrants.” Nearly a quarter of the rosters of both the American and National League All-Star teams were foreign born.

With the game in the record books, foreign-born athletes played a key role in the National League’s convincing 8-0 victory. Venezuelan-born Pablo Sandoval drove in three runs with his first-inning triple. Dominican Rafael Furcal tripled in the fourth inning and scored the National League’s sixth run.

Later in the fourth, Dominican-born Melky Cabrera knocked a two-run homer over the left-field fence, driving in the National League’s final two runs. At the conclusion of the game, Cabrera was named the most valuable player.

The contributions of Sandoval, Furcal and Cabrera, as well as other foreign-born ball All-Stars such as David Ortiz, Jose Bautista and Yu Darvish, extend well beyond the confines of Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, which recently underwent a $250 million renovation, in part to attract the All-Star Game to Kansas City.

Quite simply, the MLB All-Star game is big business. Jonna Lorenz of the Kansas City Business Journal reports that Kansas City officials expect a $50 million boost to the local economy from the game and related events.

To the extent that one sees this value as created by the players, the All-Stars, then one should also attribute approximately one-fourth of this value to efforts of immigrant ballplayers. Moreover, it’s not just in baseball that immigrant athletes are playing a prominent role in the big business of professional sports in the United States.

Two of the five starters for the Oklahoma City Thunder in this year’s National Basketball Association finals were foreign-born — Serge Ibaka from the Congo and Thabo Sefolosha from Switzerland.

More than 900 foreign-born athletes have played for U.S. Major League Soccer teams since the league was formed in 1993. Foreign-born athletes are also prominent participants in U.S. golf and tennis tournaments.

Even in the Olympics, which are often portrayed as a contest between athletes representing their nations, foreign-born athletes are part of Team USA. In the 2008 Olympic Games, 33 of the 596 U.S. athletes were foreign-born. This number is likely to increase on the 2012 team. In the past, foreign-born athletes from Ireland, Norway, Sudan, Germany and the Czechoslovakia have served as flag bearers for Team USA in Olympic opening ceremonies.

The contributions of immigrants extend beyond sports, across the entertainment industry and throughout the U.S. economy. While common stereotypes paint immigrant economic activity as limited to a few relatively low-skill activities — ethnic restaurants, landscaping, nail salons and dry cleaners — as was historically the case, recent immigrants from a number of countries are playing vital roles throughout the economic landscape.

Yes, many immigrants are in low-skill service-sector occupations, yet even in these occupations, they meet demand for labor of this type. In these fields, many also start their own businesses and create employment for others.

Further, like immigrant athletes, a large number of foreign-born workers are engaged in a wide range of specialized, high-skill economic activities. Many are educated in the U.S., while others bring expertise gained through education, training and employment in their home countries.

Some are citizens, some have green cards and visas, and others are undocumented. Apart from their immigration status — and this is an important issue not to be ignored — it is also important to acknowledge the varied roles that foreign-born workers are playing in the U.S. economy.

Whether considering Iranian civil engineers helping to build our transportation infrastructure, Indian IT specialists running websites and creating software, Chinese lab technicians working in the pharmaceutical industry, Pakistani doctors working in health clinics or the Dominican-born center-fielder Melky Cabrera, public-opinion and policy discussions need to recognize the often overlooked contributions of the foreign-born to the U.S. economy.

With support from the Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Mass., the newly created Institute for Immigration Research at George Mason University in Fairfax County will conduct systematic research in this area.

Overall, the goal is to replace prejudices with careful, empirical analyses. Heading into a national election cycle where immigration reform will be a hot-button issue, we owe it to ourselves — natives and foreign-born alike — to ground the discussion in data rather than stereotypes.

Jim Witte is a professor of sociology and the research director of the Institute for Immigration Research at George Mason University.  Josh Tuttle is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and a graduate fellow at the institute.

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, on July 22, 2012

American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and…immigrants

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