Recently, we read news reports that a Sudanese family, granted asylum in the United States due to the war in Darfur, was finally reunited after a two year struggle with U.S. Immigration. The separation of these parents from their four year old child was heartbreaking, and an example of an immigration system that does not serve our national interest.
I know that when most people think of immigration reform they think of the issue of illegal immigrants and of our border with Mexico. That is a problem that needs to be addressed, and I do not want to minimize the importance of that issue. Even though illegal immigrants take jobs that American citizens would not accept and at salaries citizens would not tolerate, the issue of immigration remains wrapped in fear for many Americans. There is the fear that an immigrant will take your job. There is the fear that an immigrant is a terrorist and a danger to our security. Despite these fears, as long as there is a tourism industry, global trade and jet travel, there will be relatively free movement of people and goods around the globe. Sealing our borders is a fantasy and it’s an idea that doesn’t serve us well.
As long as we have poor nations and rich nations, people from the poor ones will try to immigrate to the wealthy nations. My grandparents came from impoverished Russia and Poland at the start of the twentieth century, and I like to think the deal worked out well for my family and for America as well. I remember reading John F. Kennedy’s book “A Nation of Immigrants”, back in junior high school and thinking that my family was part of what made America a great country. America’s willingness to open the door to poor and ambitious people from other parts of the world is what built this country. I know that some of this “immigration idealism” is a myth, but a lot of it is true. American history has had its share of brutality. Slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, and violence against newly arrived immigrants are prominent examples of our capacity for cruelty. But the march toward a more perfect union has proceeded, even if the path has been far from direct. At the heart of our national vision is this idea of American opportunity, which is delivered through a unique combination of individualism and community.
A critical part of our nation’s unique quality is its ability to welcome and absorb immigrants. It was never all sweetness and light. Immigrants were abused and oppressed and they are to this day. But they built communities, helped each other, and eventually were brought into what Mayor David Dinkins once called “this gorgeous mosaic”. Not the melting pot of pure assimilation, but something more interesting where assimilation is tempered by retention of some of the older customs and cultures brought here by immigrants. The balance between foreign and American is in many ways the story of America: Steak and potatoes, seasoned with bagels, tacos and sushi. America transforms its new arrivals and is itself transformed by each wave of immigration.
The issue of immigration must be understood in the context of the global economy and this nation’s long term role in that economy. Our three hundred million people cannot possibly outmuscle the sheer human force of China and India. We have already completed our “demographic transition”. Just as in Europe and Japan, if left to our native population, our birth rate would no longer replace our current population. In traditional agrarian societies, healthy children are a form of wealth and social security. Children have a positive economic function in a family and are an economic asset. In modern, developed nations, children become economic liabilities. We raise families for love and gratification, but not for their economic benefits. As the economic role of children has changed, birth rates in the developed world have gradually dropped below zero population growth. In the long run, in a fully developed world, we will see this phenomenon everywhere. However, in the near term, and for the foreseeable future, we will continue to see large-scale population growth in poorer nations.
What is America’s unique long term niche in the global market place? I think of the Apple computer box that got delivered to my office last year that said “Designed in California, made in China”. That’s it in a nutshell. We have to be the place that specializes in brainpower and creativity. Freedom is not simply a political value here, it is an economic asset. We need to attract the best creative and scientific talent in the world and welcome them to America. Our way of life, entertainment, educational and natural resources can make this the best place on Earth to live, work and play. To attract the brainpower and talent we need we must make it easier to come here and stay here if a person has drive and talent. It needs to get easier for immigrants to come to America again.
I am not advocating that the door must be open with no limits. We need an immigration policy that attracts the world’s best and the brightest. America’s great strength in the global economy is that we have long allowed people to settle here from other parts of the world. That is not the case in China and Japan and in many other places in the world. Coupled with our strengths in media, communications and education, we can be the most exciting and cosmopolitan place in the world. An important part of that will be a sophisticated and strategic immigration policy administered by a competent, flexible, and agile immigration service.