Commentary

Immigrants have enriched American culture and enhanced our influence in the world

By Daniel Griswold
This article appeared in Insight on February 18, 2002.

Immigration always has been controversial in the United States. More than two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin worried that too many German immigrants would swamp America’s predominantly British culture. In the mid-1800s, Irish immigrants were scorned as lazy drunks, not to mention Roman Catholics. At the turn of the century a wave of “new immigrants” — Poles, Italians, Russian Jews — were believed to be too different ever to assimilate into American life. Today the same fears are raised about immigrants from Latin America and Asia, but current critics of immigration are as wrong as their counterparts were in previous eras.

Immigration is not undermining the American experiment; it is an integral part of it. We are a nation of immigrants. Successive waves of immigrants have kept our country demographically young, enriched our culture and added to our productive capacity as a nation, enhancing our influence in the world.

Immigration gives the United States an economic edge in the world economy. Immigrants bring innovative ideas and entrepreneurial spirit to the U.S. economy. They provide business contacts to other markets, enhancing America’s ability to trade and invest profitably in the global economy. They keep our economy flexible, allowing U.S. producers to keep prices down and to respond to changing consumer demands. An authoritative 1997 study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that immigration delivered a “significant positive gain” to the U.S. economy. In testimony before Congress last year, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan said, “I’ve always argued that this country has benefited immensely from the fact that we draw people from all over the world.”

Contrary to popular myth, immigrants do not push Americans out of jobs. Immigrants tend to fill jobs that Americans cannot or will not fill, mostly at the high and low ends of the skill spectrum. Immigrants are disproportionately represented in such high-skilled fields as medicine, physics and computer science, but also in lower-skilled sectors such as hotels and restaurants, domestic service, construction and light manufacturing.

Immigrants also raise demand for goods as well as the supply. During the long boom of the 1990s, and especially in the second half of the decade, the national unemployment rate fell below 4 percent and real wages rose up and down the income scale during a time of relatively high immigration.

Nowhere is the contribution of immigrants more apparent than in the high-technology and other knowledge-based sectors. Silicon Valley and other high-tech sectors would cease to function if we foolishly were to close our borders to skilled and educated immigrants. These immigrants represent human capital that can make our entire economy more productive. Immigrants have developed new products, such as the Java computer language, that have created employment opportunities for millions of Americans.

Immigrants are not a drain on government finances. The NAS study found that the typical immigrant and his or her offspring will pay a net $80,000 more in taxes during their lifetimes than they collect in government services. For immigrants with college degrees, the net fiscal return is $198,000. It is true that low-skilled immigrants and refugees tend to use welfare more than the typical “native” household, but the 1996 Welfare Reform Act made it much more difficult for newcomers to collect welfare. As a result, immigrant use of welfare has declined in recent years along with overall welfare rolls.

Despite the claims of immigration opponents, today’s flow is not out of proportion to historical levels. Immigration in the last decade has averaged about 1 million per year, high in absolute numbers, but the rate of 4 immigrants per year per 1,000 U.S. residents is less than half the rate during the Great Migration of 1890-1914. Today, about 10 percent of U.S. residents are foreign-born, an increase from 4.7 percent in 1970, but still far short of the 14.7 percent who were foreign-born in 1910.

Nor can immigrants fairly be blamed for causing “overpopulation.” America’s annual population growth of 1 percent is below our average growth rate of the last century. In fact, without immigration our labor force would begin to shrink within two decades. According to the 2000 Census, 22 percent of U.S. counties lost population between 1990 and 2000. Immigrants could help revitalize demographically declining areas of the country, just as they helped revitalize New York City and other previously declining urban centers.

Drastically reducing the number of foreigners who enter the United States each year only would compound the economic damage of Sept. 11 while doing nothing to enhance our security. The tourist industry, already reeling, would lose millions of foreign visitors, and American universities would lose hundreds of thousands of foreign students if our borders were closed.

Obviously the U.S. government should “control its borders” to keep out anyone who intends to commit terrorist acts. The problem is not that we are letting too many people into the United States but that the government has failed to keep the wrong people out. We can stop terrorists from entering the United States without closing our borders or reducing the number of hardworking, peaceful immigrants who settle here.

We must do whatever is necessary to stop potentially dangerous people at the border. Law-enforcement and intelligence agencies must work closely with the State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and U.S. Customs to share real-time information about potential terrorists. Computer systems must be upgraded and new technologies adopted to screen out the bad guys without causing intolerable delays at the border. More agents need to be posted at ports of entry to more thoroughly screen for high-risk travelers. We must bolster cooperation with our neighbors, Canada and Mexico, to ensure that terrorists cannot slip across our long land borders.

In the wake of Sept. 11, longtime critics of immigration have tried to exploit legitimate concerns about security to argue for drastic cuts in immigration. But border security and immigration are two separate matters. Immigrants are only a small subset of the total number of foreigners who enter the United States every year. Only about one of every 25 foreign nationals who enter the United States come here to immigrate. The rest are tourists, business travelers, students and Mexican and Canadians who cross the border for a weekend to shop or visit family and then return home with no intention of settling permanently in the United States.

The 19 terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11 did not apply to the INS to immigrate or to become U.S. citizens. Like most aliens who enter the United States, they were here on temporary tourist and student visas. We could reduce the number of immigrants to zero and still not stop terrorists from slipping into the country on nonimmigrant visas.

To defend ourselves better against terrorism, our border-control system requires a reorientation of mission. For the last two decades, U.S. immigration policy has been obsessed with nabbing mostly Mexican-born workers whose only “crime” is their desire to earn an honest day’s pay. Those workers pose no threat to national security.

Our land border with Mexico is half as long as our border with Canada, yet before Sept. 11 it was patrolled by 10 times as many border agents. On average we were posting an agent every five miles along our 3,987-mile border with Canada and every quarter-mile on the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. On the Northern border there were 120,000 entries per year per agent compared with 40,000 entries on the Southwestern border. This is out of proportion to any legitimate fears about national security. In fact terrorists seem to prefer the northern border. Let’s remember that it was at a border-crossing station in Washington state in December 1999 that a terrorist was apprehended with explosives that were to be used to blow up Los Angeles International Airport during the millennium celebrations.

At a February 2000 hearing, former Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) warned that “understaffing at our northern border is jeopardizing the security of our nation, not to mention border personnel, while in at least some sections of the southern border, there are so many agents that there is not enough work to keep them all busy.”

We should stop wasting scarce resources in a self-destructive quest to hunt down Mexican construction workers and raid restaurants and chicken-processing plants, and redirect those resources to track potential terrorists and smash their cells before they can blow up more buildings and kill more Americans.

For all these reasons, President George W. Bush’s initiative to legalize and regularize the movement of workers across the U.S.-Mexican border makes sense in terms of national security as well as economics. It also is politically smart.

In his latest book, The Death of the West, Pat Buchanan argues that opposing immigration will be a winning formula for conservative Republicans. His own political decline and fall undermine his claim. Like former liberal Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in California, Buchanan has tried to win votes by blaming immigration for America’s problems. But voters wisely rejected Buchanan’s thesis. Despite $12 million in taxpayer campaign funds, and an assist from the Florida butterfly ballot, Buchanan won less than 0.5 percent of the presidential vote in 2000. In contrast Bush, by affirming immigration, raised the GOP’s share of the Hispanic vote to 35 percent from the 21 percent carried by Bob Dole in 1996. If conservatives adopt the anti-immigrant message, they risk following Buchanan and Wilson into political irrelevancy.

It would be a national shame if, in the name of security, we closed the door to immigrants who come here to work, save and build a better life for themselves and their families. Immigrants come here to live the American Dream; terrorists come to destroy it. We should not allow America’s tradition of welcoming immigrants to become yet another casualty of Sept. 11.

Daniel Griswold is the director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.