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Christopher Sabatini Headshot

A More Mature Immigration Policy

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I've never been one of those people who, in lamenting policy and politics in the U.S., builds up another country to disparage my own. Yet I must admit, this week I felt pangs of envy in hearing Québec officials talk with cool rationale about the economic calculations behind their immigration policies.

I was in Montreal on a trip organized by the Québec delegation in NYC. While I was there I had the opportunity to meet with high-level officials and community groups working on immigration and the integration of future and recent arrivals into Québec's economy and society. The ways they described their policies and their future efforts couldn't contrast more with what is occurring in the United States. For those in Québec, immigration is a demographic imperative: they need an influx of young workers to replace the province's aging workforce. Getting them is critical to sustaining the province's economic growth, competitiveness and paying for the pensions of those soon-over-the-hill French Canadians approaching retirement. As the Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil said, "We're now in competition with Ireland and Australia for skilled labor." (Her mention of Australia revealed the tough competitors Canada faces today in trying to attract immigrants: "Sure they have the weather and beaches, but they also have sharks," she said, trying to put the best face on Québec's notoriously brutal winters. On this, I would also encourage the Ministry to highlight Australia's baby-eating dingoesfor the non-swimming immigrants thinking of setting up a new life in Australia.)

You would never hear the same immigration maturity just south of the Canadian border. While the problem of labor force replacement is more acute in Québec than in the U.S., we do need to worry about replacement rates for our declining fertility rates -- and it is only going to become more serious. Between 2002 and 2012, 28 million jobs will be created in the U.S. requiring less than a high school education -- given rising education rates in the U.S., the native-born population will not be able to fill that demand.

Like Québec, we also need a regular flow of immigrant labor too to shore up our social security system. Despite what the anti-immigrant nativists would have you believe, immigrants--even undocumented immigrants--pay more in taxes than they take out, providing a critical source of new revenue for those soon-to-be retiring baby boomers that threaten to bankrupt our social security system. According to a 2007 Social Security Administration Report just the addition of 100,000 new, net immigrants per year increases the long-range actuarial balance of our taxable payroll by .07 percent. If you multiply that with the approximately million immigrants that arrive on our shores each year, that's a real revenue source.

For these reasons, the economic rationale for immigration should be the organizing principle for our policy and for our public debate. It should be the basis of our public discussion on the matter, and it should be the central basis for how we allot worker and temporary visas. Instead, from Arizona to Northern Virginia, the public discourse over immigration is too often being driven by fear, racism and efforts to close off the border. When government officials do talk immigration, as a recent White House report did, the tone is often defensive, marshaling data to prove that immigration doesn't lower wages to stave off opposition. Even those in favor of immigration often cloud the matter by lobbying to give greater weight to matters of family re-unification, overblowing fears of exploitation of workers under temporary visa programs and engaging in a starry-eyed romanticism about the place of immigration in U.S. history.

Because the Québec provincial government (and Canada in general) has made clear its economic need for immigration, it has no qualms about setting targets, weighing potential immigrants by specific qualifications (age, profession, education) and talking about immigration generally. And from this logically follows a host of state-funded programs to promote the integration of immigrants.

For a U.S. citizen, talking to Québec officials about immigration is like entering a parallel universe. Here are government officials who look like and talk like you (o.k., with a French accent) that are willing to discuss proudly and openly how they need immigrants and seek immigration. They state with precision the sorts of immigrants they want and how they rationally (even coldly) weigh qualifications. No fear of vitriolic denunciations by anti-immigrant activists for promoting immigration or by pro-immigrant groups for applying the economics of immigration.

Stranger still, Minister Weil and provincially supported community groups proudly ticked off government programs to integrate immigrants, from French-language classes in which students are paid (paid!) to attend civics courses and assistance in looking for jobs once in Québec. Imagine a similar program in the United States. You can't. And it's on the issue of integration that the U.S. is really in a vicious circle. There are no federal programs in the U.S. for the integration of immigrants -- all in line, I suppose, with our bootstrap mentality. Yet, it is the concerns about the integration of Hispanic immigrants that, in large part, is driving the backlash.

Now, I realize that Québec and Canada are not the United States -- something which my hosts reminded me of several times (as if the accents and poutin-heavy menus weren't enough). For one, the province's need for immigrants is immediate, unlike the U.S. where the real crunch won't become evident for at least a decade. And Québec's needs are primarily in high-tech, an area where even in the U.S., if you were to strip out the issue of low-skilled immigrants, the immigration policy would be much easier and saner. For another, the U.S. -- unlike Québec and Canada -- is a traditional destination for immigrants. In the U.S. the question has been how to regulate immigration not attract immigrants.

But each of these counterpoints shouldn't preclude a more sensible debate and policy in the United States. First, while our need for immigration may not be as acute, even today our labor market (and competitiveness) are suffering as a result. Neither this nor the long-term consequences have entered into debate in a serious way, but must if we are going to move forward. Second, the issue of high and low-skilled workers isn't as clear cut as it seems. Reaction against immigration has impeded the U.S.'s ability to attract the skilled technicians it needs because the ceilings are too low. At the same time, in Québec, even the search for high-end immigrants has not reduced the flow of lower skilled workers, and it hasn't produced a reaction. The fact is: they are the same issue, something that U.S. policymakers and a number of U.S. business leaders who lobby for more high-skilled visas refuse to recognize. And last, sure the U.S. has been more of a destination for immigration, but that shouldn't preclude us from regulating it rationally -- something we're not doing largely because too many are preoccupied with sealing off our borders.

Finally, when it comes to integration programs, in Québec they have the seemingly quaint issue of "Frenchness." This is the concept -- as I came to understand it through my meetings -- is the near-constitutional guarantee to preserve Québec's French character by establishing a quota of French speakers in the province. OK, that's uniquely French Canadian.

But aside from the special aspects of the relationship that provides legitimacy to a generous provincial program to teach immigrants French and about Québec, there is nothing that should prevent even a modest U.S. federal program to help immigrants adjust. It doesn't have to include paying students to attend classes. In fact, in many of the cases I've seen in the U.S., immigrants are willing to attend language classes on their own. Many times they are offered by employers, who, unlike many in my country, do understand the economic value and contribution of immigrants. If the economics of immigration were placed more in the center of the debate -- as in Québec -- it wouldn't be too much to ask even the U.S. federal government to help recent immigrants -- the ultimate engine of our economic competitiveness and future -- find their way into the fold of U.S. society, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. I don't think it makes me un-American (or even pro-Québécois) to say that. Quite the opposite, I find it positively American and evolved.

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