Immigrants Have Enriched American Culture and Enhanced Our Influence in the World

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 toomany German immigrants would swamp America’s predominantly Britishculture. In the mid‐​1800s, Irish immigrants were scorned as lazydrunks, not to mention Roman Catholics. At the turn of the centurya wave of “new immigrants” — Poles, Italians, Russian Jews — werebelieved to be too different ever to assimilate into American life.Today the same fears are raised about immigrants from Latin Americaand Asia, but current critics of immigration are as wrong as theircounterparts were in previous eras.

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

Immigration gives the United States an economic edge in theworld economy. Immigrants bring innovative ideas andentrepreneurial spirit to the U.S. economy. They provide businesscontacts to other markets, enhancing America’s ability to trade andinvest profitably in the global economy. They keep our economyflexible, allowing U.S. producers to keep prices down and torespond to changing consumer demands. An authoritative 1997 studyby the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded thatimmigration delivered a “significant positive gain” to the U.S.economy. In testimony before Congress last year, Federal ReserveBoard Chairman Alan Greenspan said, “I’ve always argued that thiscountry has benefited immensely from the fact that we draw peoplefrom all over the world.”

Contrary to popular myth, immigrants do not push Americans outof jobs. Immigrants tend to fill jobs that Americans cannot or willnot fill, mostly at the high and low ends of the skill spectrum.Immigrants are disproportionately represented in such high‐​skilledfields as medicine, physics and computer science, but also inlower‐​skilled sectors such as hotels and restaurants, domesticservice, 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 secondhalf of the decade, the national unemployment rate fell below 4percent and real wages rose up and down the income scale during atime of relatively high immigration.

Nowhere is the contribution of immigrants more apparent than inthe high‐​technology and other knowledge‐​based sectors. SiliconValley and other high‐​tech sectors would cease to function if wefoolishly were to close our borders to skilled and educatedimmigrants. These immigrants represent human capital that can makeour entire economy more productive. Immigrants have developed newproducts, such as the Java computer language, that have createdemployment opportunities for millions of Americans.

Immigrants are not a drain on government finances. The NAS studyfound that the typical immigrant and his or her offspring will paya net $80,000 more in taxes during their lifetimes than theycollect in government services. For immigrants with collegedegrees, the net fiscal return is $198,000. It is true thatlow‐​skilled immigrants and refugees tend to use welfare more thanthe typical “native” household, but the 1996 Welfare Reform Actmade it much more difficult for newcomers to collect welfare. As aresult, immigrant use of welfare has declined in recent years alongwith overall welfare rolls.

Despite the claims of immigration opponents, today’s flow is notout of proportion to historical levels. Immigration in the lastdecade has averaged about 1 million per year, high in absolutenumbers, but the rate of 4 immigrants per year per 1,000 U.S.residents is less than half the rate during the Great Migration of1890‐​1914. Today, about 10 percent of U.S. residents areforeign‐​born, an increase from 4.7 percent in 1970, but still farshort 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 percentis below our average growth rate of the last century. In fact,without immigration our labor force would begin to shrink withintwo decades. According to the 2000 Census, 22 percent of U.S.counties lost population between 1990 and 2000. Immigrants couldhelp revitalize demographically declining areas of the country,just as they helped revitalize New York City and other previouslydeclining urban centers.

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

Obviously the U.S. government should “control its borders” tokeep out anyone who intends to commit terrorist acts. The problemis not that we are letting too many people into the United Statesbut that the government has failed to keep the wrong people out. Wecan stop terrorists from entering the United States without closingour borders or reducing the number of hardworking, peacefulimmigrants who settle here.

We must do whatever is necessary to stop potentially dangerouspeople at the border. Law‐​enforcement and intelligence agenciesmust work closely with the State Department, the Immigration andNaturalization Service (INS) and U.S. Customs to share real‐​timeinformation about potential terrorists. Computer systems must beupgraded and new technologies adopted to screen out the bad guyswithout causing intolerable delays at the border. More agents needto be posted at ports of entry to more thoroughly screen forhigh‐​risk travelers. We must bolster cooperation with ourneighbors, Canada and Mexico, to ensure that terrorists cannot slipacross our long land borders.

In the wake of Sept. 11, longtime critics of immigration havetried to exploit legitimate concerns about security to argue fordrastic cuts in immigration. But border security and immigrationare two separate matters. Immigrants are only a small subset of thetotal number of foreigners who enter the United States every year.Only about one of every 25 foreign nationals who enter the UnitedStates come here to immigrate. The rest are tourists, businesstravelers, students and Mexican and Canadians who cross the borderfor a weekend to shop or visit family and then return home with nointention of settling permanently in the United States.

The 19 terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11 didnot apply to the INS to immigrate or to become U.S. citizens. Likemost aliens who enter the United States, they were here ontemporary tourist and student visas. We could reduce the number ofimmigrants to zero and still not stop terrorists from slipping intothe country on nonimmigrant visas.

To defend ourselves better against terrorism, our border‐​controlsystem requires a reorientation of mission. For the last twodecades, U.S. immigration policy has been obsessed with nabbingmostly Mexican‐​born workers whose only “crime” is their desire toearn an honest day’s pay. Those workers pose no threat to nationalsecurity.

Our land border with Mexico is half as long as our border withCanada, yet before Sept. 11 it was patrolled by 10 times as manyborder agents. On average we were posting an agent every five milesalong our 3,987-mile border with Canada and every quarter‐​mile onthe 2,000-mile border with Mexico. On the Northern border therewere 120,000 entries per year per agent compared with 40,000entries on the Southwestern border. This is out of proportion toany legitimate fears about national security. In fact terroristsseem to prefer the northern border. Let’s remember that it was at aborder‐​crossing station in Washington state in December 1999 that aterrorist was apprehended with explosives that were to be used toblow up Los Angeles International Airport during the millenniumcelebrations.

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

We should stop wasting scarce resources in a self‐​destructivequest to hunt down Mexican construction workers and raidrestaurants and chicken‐​processing plants, and redirect thoseresources to track potential terrorists and smash their cellsbefore they can blow up more buildings and kill more Americans.

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

In his latest book, The Death of the West, Pat Buchanan arguesthat opposing immigration will be a winning formula forconservative Republicans. His own political decline and fallundermine his claim. Like former liberal Republican Gov. PeteWilson in California, Buchanan has tried to win votes by blamingimmigration for America’s problems. But voters wisely rejectedBuchanan’s thesis. Despite $12 million in taxpayer campaign funds,and an assist from the Florida butterfly ballot, Buchanan won lessthan 0.5 percent of the presidential vote in 2000. In contrastBush, by affirming immigration, raised the GOP’s share of theHispanic vote to 35 percent from the 21 percent carried by Bob Dolein 1996. If conservatives adopt the anti‐​immigrant message, theyrisk following Buchanan and Wilson into political irrelevancy.

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