Immigration to the United States is a hot topic right now, and one on which emotions run deep and logic runs shallow. Few have expressed a rational, centrist position on the topic. This posting will tackle the easier issue first, legal immigration. The next one will cover the thornier, illegal immigration. The final post on the subject will deal with integration and assimilation of the new Americans.
Prior to the Immigration Act of 1924, and the McCarran-Walter Act of 1954, there was little legislation prohibiting open immigration. Therefore, almost all immigration was legal, as long as the immigrant could pass a basic health screening. The Native Americans were the first immigrants to arrive, some 12,000 years ago, via a temporary land-bridge from Northeast Asia. Centuries later came the English, the French (in the North), and the Spanish (in the South and Southwest). Then came Dutch and Swedes. Africans came, usually against their will. All of this was before we became a country. In the mid 1800s the Irish came, and were roundly rejected by the Nativists. Then came the Germans (and German Jews) and the Scandinavians. Chinese were recruited to build the Transcontinental Railroad, then were despised and further immigrants excluded. Eastern Europeans (Poles, Russians, Hungarians, Czechs and Jews) and Southern Europeans (Italians and Greeks) came in increasing numbers from the end of the Nineteenth Century. The numbers were sufficiently large to prompt the Nativists to pass the 1924 act, limiting legal immigration for the first time.
Annual quotas were enforced, based by nationality on the percentage of the US population of that nationality already in our country. The McCarran-Walter Act made adjustments to the numbers, and clarified screening criteria, giving preference to the skilled and to family members of those already in this country.
If our country wasn’t built by immigrants and their children, we must believe it emerged from thin air. Every one of us is an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant. Even what we call Native Americans can be traced to another continent of origin. Immigration has made our country, the richest and most sought after in the world, what it is.
If we were to further restrict legal immigration we would experience relative economic decline within a generation, due to the insufficient number of scientists and engineers our native-born produce. We would suffer a great decline in new business startups, the source of innovation and competitiveness, as immigrants or their children represent a far greater proportion of entrepreneurs than their population numbers would imply. And growth in numbers of working population is in itself important–try funding Social Security and Medicare on a declining wage-earning base, especially as longevity increases. Japan, Russia, Italy and others will face serious problems in this regard within 20 years.
We are one of the few nations where people with skill and ambition want to immigrate. Why would we not want to take advantage of that? Legal immigration limits should be raised. Of course, proper vetting to keep out those who would do us harm is in order. But it is doubtful that the doctors, engineers and scientists that we need are potential malefactors. We make only a small exception for now, with the H1-B skilled employee visa program, which puts a low annual ceiling on the number allowed in for work permits. Why do we educate many graduate students in our latest technologies, only to send them back to their countries of origin, to compete with us? These foreign students are studying at our research universities because they are the brightest, and because too few Americans choose to apply for these fields.
After I drafted these thoughts, but before posting them, I read an editorial in the March 7th Wall Street Journal that stated 83% of the finalists in the national Regeneron Science Talent Search were children of immigrants, and nearly 70% had a parent who came to this country as an international graduate student. Further, the article cited research that showed immigrants have founded more than half of American startups that have become valued at $1Billion or more. Do you know how many jobs that has created? Do we want that talent creating those companies in other countries?
One of the problems with immigration is that we do a poor job of separating legal and illegal immigration in our discussion, conflating the two. Let’s deal with them as two separate issues, and foster legal immigration of those we know will help our society.