Immigrants Have Worlds To Offer

Immigration fatigue is weighing upon many Americans, following the arrival of a near-record 10 million immigrants since 1980. Fly from Portland, Ore., to Los Angeles, where 44% of the adults are foreign-born, or drive from Coral Springs, Fla., to Miami, where 70% of adults are born abroad, and the sense of entering a different country is very real.

Too real for 68% of this nation's population, who now think immigration is "bad" for the country, according to a business week/Harris poll. Are they right? From the standpoint of the overall economy, the answer is a resounding "no." Immigration has proved to be a powerful, pervasive economic stimulant. Yet it would be unwise to simply deny the pain of immigration that our society is experiencing. It would be even more unwise to leave it to know-nothing bigots to give voice to what two-thirds of the people are feeling.

The heated public debates over multiculturalism and bilingual education in public schools reflect a deep social anxiety. The fear is that recent immigrants by virtue of their sheer numbers and, in some cases, through their own choice are resisting the assimilation of core, shared American values, especially the desire to speak English. People also are concerned that in an era of high social need and low financial resources, the extra burden placed on social services, especially the schools, by the large number of immigrants who speak limited English may be too great.

FAST ASSIMILATION. To judge by the newcomers' remarkably successful record in the globally competitive top half of the U.S. economy--such industries as high technology, industrial design, biotechnology, and advertising--there isn't much of a problem. The new immigrants' attitudes toward education and work represent values that are as American as you can get. A quarter of all immigrants have college degrees, slightly higher than the average for native-born Americans. Engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs from overseas have been critical to the great success of hundreds of computer, biotech, and software companies. To take just one example, Andrew S. Grove, founder of Intel Corp., is from Hungary, and his company is staffed with people born in India, Taiwan, and elsewhere. With their bilingual skills, family ties, and knowledge of how things get done overseas, immigrants are making important contributions in exporting Made-in-the-usa goods and services, especially to the fast-growing Latin American and Asian markets. Immigrants also are bringing new energy to our aging cities by setting up businesses and buying real estate. Without them, the nation's 10 largest cities would have shrunk by 6.8% in the past decade, instead of growing by 4.7%. Immigrants pay an estimated $90 billion in taxes, compared with the $5 billion in welfare benefits they receive. So if building new companies and generating jobs, profits, and taxes to pay for social services are American, these immigrants are probably assimilating as fast, or perhaps even faster, than our grandparents did.

The picture is less clear at the bottom half of the economy, which is under severe pressure as the competitive forces of globalization sweep across America, drying up unskilled jobs and putting downward pressure on wages. While about one-quarter of the past decade's new immigrant workers had college degrees, about one-third actually dropped out before graduating from high school. Many only finished the fifth or sixth grade. These immigrants tend to be non-English-speaking, sometimes barely literate in their own native languages, less able and less willing to adapt to American culture, and more of a burden on social services. Of course it is true that an advanced degree is not a prerequisite for becoming an entrepreneur. Many of these immigrants have proved extremely adept at using their extended families to pool resources and start their own small businesses on city streets. Yet many others are joining tens of millions of poorly educated and low-skilled Americans at the bottom of the ladder, competing for a shrinking number of poorly paid jobs. Some 73% of African-Americans believe that immigrants are taking jobs away from them, according to the bw/Harris poll.

NEPOTISM? So, does America have an immigration "problem"? By and large, no. This nation of immigrants is benefiting nicely from its infusion of new peoples. But there are changes in public policy that can improve the situation. Right now, 62% of all legal immigrants, including political refugees, are granted visas solely on the basis of their family ties to people already living in the U.S., while only 17% get admitted on the basis of job-related skills. While that appears to be fair to those with family already in the U.S., the policy resembles nepotism to the millions of other would-be immigrants around the world who are now locked out of America. The law already restricts the definition of "family" to immediate relatives. Cutting back the quota based solely on family would open up immigration slots for others by boosting the number of people allowed to immigrate on the basis of skills. That would make the immigration standard more merit-based.

By doubling the percentage of skills-based immigration, the U.S. would also permit a greater number of Eastern Europeans into the country. That would help many people caught up in the turmoil of the end of communism, just as the 1965 immigration law helped millions of Asians and Latin Americans caught up in the conflicts of their own countries during the '70s and '80s. Finally, the school systems of gateway cities that bear the brunt of immigration should receive special federal assistance for bilingual programs that help children make the transition to classes conducted in English. There can be no denying the pain of immigration, both for the immigrants who must discard some of their cherished traditions in their new world and for mainstream Americans who must adjust to the newcomers. But for an immigrant society such as ours, the pain is more than worth it. Immigration is revitalizing America.

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