November 25, 2011
If a foreign country sent us some of its most valuable assets for nothing—gold, oil, computers, automobiles, whatever—we would, of course, be grateful. It’s obvious that we would have become wealthier without it costing us anything.
But suppose this country sent us instead their smartest, most industrious people, who were willing to work here for no more than what the free market provides? Most Americans would probably view this gift as a mixed blessing at best and a curse at worst. Many would see these people as burdens on society, stealing jobs from the native born, taking up space in the schools, and consuming society’s resources, while contributing nothing and perhaps being no better than parasites. They may even be viewed as poisoning American culture with incompatible religions, customs and ideas.
It’s fair to say that many Americans believe that the country would be better off if most recently arrived immigrants—legal or illegal—would just go back where they came from or at least go somewhere else. States like Alabama and Arizona have adopted policies designed to make them as inhospitable to foreigners as possible. In those states, the police are required to question anyone who looks foreign and demand proof that they are in this country legally. Any foreigner or foreign-looking person who neglects to have the proper papers on them at all times is subject to arrest, as a Mercedes-Benz executive discovered in Tuscaloosa recently.
The insanity of this anti-immigrant attitude is that foreigners are America’s hidden strength, a key reason why this country has long maintained its dynamism while others, such as Japan, which remain insular and ethnically homogeneous, have fallen by the wayside. There are a number of reasons why this is the case.
It was the westward
expansion that really brought
the slavery issue to a head.
It’s important to remember that it takes a very special type of person to leave the land of his or her birth and move to another country, where they may not even know the language, to try to build a better life. The United States has long been a magnet for such people, a critical fact in the development of the distinctive American character since the very beginning.
Even within the United States, the long existence of the western frontier separated Americans satisfied with the status quo from those always looking for something more. A century ago, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner explained the central role of western migration in his famous essay, “The Frontier in American History.”
Turner was mainly looking at how the frontier pressured the status quo and forced it to change. For example, it was the westward expansion that really brought the slavery issue to a head. The admission of new states where slavery was rejected was the central fact that ultimately triggered the Civil War.
But another implication of Turner’s thesis is that those attracted by the frontier, willing to take their chances on building a new life far from the land of their birth, meant that the people who populated the West were going to be more individualistic, entrepreneurial and independent than those happy to stay put where they were. That is why to this day western states retain a culture and style that is distinctive from that in the East.
The same qualities
of determination, a
desire to succeed and
overcome obstacles, will
be evident in all of them.
The same qualities are evident in immigrants everywhere, not just in the U.S. It doesn’t matter whether the immigrants are from Eastern Europe living in Germany, or from India living in London, or from Vietnam living in Northern Virginia. The same qualities of determination, a desire to succeed and overcome obstacles, will be evident in all of them.
One of the hallmarks of immigrant communities everywhere is a desire for self-improvement. This fact is illustrated in a recent Census Bureau report. It shows that a third of all college degrees in engineering go to the foreign born, as do 27 percent of those majoring in mathematics, computers and statistics. In the physical sciences, 24 percent of degrees go the foreign born, as do 17 percent of those in the biological, agricultural and environmental sciences. Indeed, the hard-working, always-studying foreign student is a stereotype on many American TV shows, often the butt of jokes by native-born fools who prefer to party away their school years.
A May study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that a high percentage of students excelling at high level science competitions are the children of immigrants. Meanwhile, the native born are busy getting degrees in ethnic, cultural and gender studies, visual and performing arts, family and consumer sciences, and other fields unlikely to provide well-paying job opportunities or add much to the gross domestic product.
The direct impact of immigrants is only the beginning of their contribution to society. In a just-published book, “Borderless Economics”, Robert Guest, business editor of the Economist, explains how immigrant communities are extremely powerful networks linking those living here to the best and brightest still living in their homelands. The Chinese and Indian diaspora provide invaluable connections to businesses in China and India that are creating vast wealth both here and there: a classic win-win situation.
For these reasons, Michael Clemons of the Global Development Center in Washington calls increasing immigration the biggest no-brainer for raising growth in history. His recent article in the prestigious Journal of Economic Perspectives, “Economics and Emigration: Trillion Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?” says, in effect, immigrants bring with them millions of dollars in human capital that asks only the opportunity to earn a return.
Unfortunately, closed-minded attitudes by many native-born Americans prevent us from fully exploiting the opportunities presented by foreigners wanting only an H1B visa to give this country the benefits of their skills, training, education and network connections for the enrichment of all those living within the borders of the United States. Keeping these people out is the equivalent of looking a gift horse in the mouth.