Public opinion surveys consistently show the American public opposed to greater immigration. There are several reasons for this. First, immigrants are suspected of taking away jobs from American citizens. Second, many Americans fear that immigrant families will end up on welfare or public dependency, thus costing taxpayers more and reducing government services to the general population. Finally, a large number of Americans, especially in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, worry that the nation is losing its distinct language and cultural identity. In fact, some observe that, seeing all the Koreans and Pakistanis and Africans on the street, they feel as though they are in a Third World country and not at home.
For a first generation immigrant like myself, it is tempting to respond to these concerns with strident denunciations of nativism or even racism, to invoke Ellis Island and the “nation of immigrants” theme, and to conclude that it is improper to question the legitimacy of my presence in this country, or that of anyone like me who wishes to live and work here.
This reaction would be immature. Of course a nation has every right to determine its membership, just as every other organization chooses who may join the ranks and who may not. It is also legitimate for citizens to cherish a sense of common national identity and to seek to preserve these distinctively American ideals for their children and grandchildren. These sentiments may degenerate into vulgar nativism or bigotry, but they are not inherently evil.
In fact, it is precisely for the promotion of distinctively American principles that I believe a more liberal immigration policy is warranted. Paradoxically, the evidence suggests that immigrants have more to contribute to America, and less to take from it, than native citizens. Now as before, freer immigration may be just what the country needs to increase its economic competitiveness and to preserve its social and political principles. How can this be so?
Immigrants create more jobs than they take away: Several studies have shown that immigrants are very entrepreneurial by nature—not surprising, since it takes a certain courage and openness to risk for one to leave one’s home country and establish a new home abroad. According to Teresa Sullivan of the University of Texas, immigrants are twice as likely to be self-employed as native citizens. They save at higher rates than most citizens and thus invest in productive American enterprise. Finally, their purchasing power helps to create more jobs for the economy.
Immigrants pay the government far more than they receive: Since immigrants typically arrive when they are young and healthy, they contribute far more in taxes to the government than they extract in welfare services. Economist Julian Simon of the University of Maryland estimates that “an average immigrant family puts about $2,500 into the pockets of natives from the excess of taxes over public costs.” This immigrant surplus could be very significant as the American baby boom generation grows older, and a smaller number of young people are called upon to support a larger number of retirees. Immigrant taxpayers could help the U.S. government meet its Social Security obligations.
Immigrants bring valued educational and technical skills: A disproportionate share of America’s Nobel laureates, inventors, scientists, engineers, business entrepreneurs, and high school valedictorians are foreign-born. Writing in a recent issue of Commentary, Ben Wattenberg and Karl Zinsmeister point out that 13 of 17 public high school valedictorians in the class of 1989 in Boston were foreign-born. Immigrants are 50 percent more likely than American natives to have post-graduate degrees. These skills are invaluable to the U.S. economy’s ability to compete effectively in world markets.
Immigrants embody traditional American principles: In a funny and yet understandable way, immigrants who become citizens tend to become “more American than the Americans.” Despite initial English barriers, many assimilate quickly—often within a single generation. They tend to work longer hours and to save more, and also to embody traditional norms such as stable and close-knit families, self-reliance and self-discipline, as well as a patriotic fervor intense enough to bewilder many native citizens.
This is, no doubt, a very favorable portrait. There is also a negative side to immigration. Certain immigrant communities display alarmingly high crime rates, others seem recalcitrant about speaking in their native tongue instead of learning English, still others seem distressingly lacking in qualities of innovation, hard work, and self-reliance. These problems are the exception, not the rule, but they have the effect of diminishing American enthusiasm for taking in more foreigners.
But the problems derive not from immigration per se, rather, they stem from the faulty principles which govern American immigration policy. Most other industrialized countries, including Australia and Canada, largely accept immigrants based on a “point system” which favors visa applicants in terms of age, educational background, and technical skills. Consequently, as economist George Borjas argues in the Wall Street Journal, immigrants have helped to buoy the economies of those countries.
By contrast, the U.S. has a more “tribal” policy which accepts 75 percent of immigrants based on blood relations with American citizens or residents, and only 5 percent or so based on desired skills. What Wittenberg and Zinsmeister call “helter-skelter preferences” can result in Cuban convicts and uneducated Mexicans and Filipinos being accepted into the U.S. over much more productive and law-abiding applicants from those, and other, countries.
Immigration reform should thus involve accepting a larger overall number of immigrants, but with more careful selection to make sure that America gets the kind of people she wants. Currently the U.S. takes in a modest 600,000 people each year—that could easily be expanded to a million or so, without short-term economic indigestion and with long-term benefits. But at the same time the U.S. would do well to increase the proportion of immigrants accepted on merit, so that they contribute more to the nation than they cost.
“Open immigration and no welfare,” a radical economist friend of mine urges. While this may be too drastic for the foreseeable future, it outlines the basic contours along which effective immigration reform should be constructed.