Why Immigration Reform Is Good for Translation, Just Not for the Reasons You Think

US Republican Senator from Florida Marco Rubio (R) speaks alongside US Democratic Senator from New York Chuck Schumer during
US Republican Senator from Florida Marco Rubio (R) speaks alongside US Democratic Senator from New York Chuck Schumer during a press conference on an agreement for principles on comprehensive immigration reform framework at the US Capitol in Washington on January 28, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States will soon face immigration reform, as President Obama highlighted in his inaugural address this week. Which parts of the language industry stand to benefit from comprehensive reform, and who will have an advantage?

Common Sense Advisory conducted a large-scale study of federal government spending on translation and interpreting services. Our research showed that spending on language services by the United States government tends to be lower under Democratic administrations like Obama's than under Republican ones. The reason? Language-related spending that results from domestically focused policies is much less than the much larger amounts spent for military and defense purposes.

Now that the Obama administration is withdrawing the heavy American military presence from places like Afghanistan, overall spending on language services by the U.S. government will likely decline. While commitments to language-related work for intelligence purposes might increase, they will not come close to the cost of sending live interpreters into combat zones where they help soldiers communicate.

However, immigration reform will certainly help the language services market, for one simple reason. Immigration is good for the American economy at large. Another longitudinal study we published showed that the language services market often tracks closely to other major economic indicators. When the U.S. economy soars, so too does the language services market. Economic performance of the American economy affects not only providers based on U.S. soil, but those many translation companies overseas that have offices, employees, or customers here, too.

How does immigration boost the economy? There are many reasons, but the short answer is that immigration adds more people who in turn spend more money. Businesses benefit from this spending, a fact reflected in the larger economy.

Contrary to popular belief, immigration reform will not necessarily generate that many new opportunities for translation and interpreting services to be sold. The reason is simple - most of the changes under the reform will likely benefit people who are already living in the United States. Even if immigration increases, most of the new immigrants would come from Mexico, a population which is already largely served with Spanish-language materials and interpreters, where needed.

Immigration is not a major revenue generator for translation or localization. It is an important driver for the interpreting market, which would likely see some increased revenue, but no extreme changes to its already healthy growth. Unless the new legislation introduces specific provisions requiring language access, we at Common Sense Advisory don't see the reform having much of a direct impact on the language services market. The impact on the language services market would instead be indirect, resulting from a healthier and stronger American economy overall.