Public reaction was swift last week following US Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ plans to rescind the DACA Program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). The Obama-era initiative provided legal status to the children of undocumented immigrants under the age of 31, as of 2012. The fates of these 780,000 “dreamers” are now unclear, and in the hands of Congress. At risk is their right to work and remain in the US as the threat of deportation hangs ominously in the air.
This decision marks the latest in a series of immigration orders which, taken together, paint a concerning trend of this administration’s “America First” policy. These measures are often billed as security enhancements or immigration enforcement to fix a “broken system,” but they appear broader and more exclusionary in scope.
As this article illustrates, the current path is fraught with repercussions for US growth and interests, that unless corrected, will end up hurting the American citizen. Consider the following immigration orders rolled out in steady increments since the beginning of the year:
After a campaign promise for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” came January’s “Executive Order Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” ― known more irreverently as the “Muslim ban,” which prohibits travel from seven Muslim majority countries to the US.
In July, eight months after fmr. White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon implied on radio that there were too many CEO’s of South Asian or Asian descent in Silicon Valley, came the deferral (and possible elimination) of a program would have allowed for close to 3,000 of the the most promising start-up entrepreneurs from around the world to bring their businesses to the US. The decision was met with dismay from US business leaders who warned about the adverse effects to the economy; and to the overall spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that gives the US its competitive edge in the world.
In August, the president backed a bill proposed by two Republican senators that would cut legal immigration to the US in half within a decade. If passed, it would mark the most sweeping changes in immigration policy since 1965. Then, towards the end of the month, he threatened to shut down the government over border wall funding.
Finally, as of last week DACA faces an uncertain future; as do a series of humanitarian and amnesty programs which are up for reevaluation in the upcoming months. The image that emerges is one that is a far cry from an America that once attracted the world’s brightest and talented; and served as a refuge for the world’s poor, tired, and “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”
The US has had a mixed record when it comes to immigration. On one hand there is implicit recognition by a large segment of the population that the nation was built by, and continues to be shaped by immigrants. On the other, fears have been voiced by segments of the population about the negative impact of immigration on America’s sense of national identity, and on overall wages and opportunities.
It was the latter’s populist narrative, combined with growing income inequality that made immigration (not the economy, terrorism, or foreign policy) the number one policy issue for Trump voters.
The oft-repeated myths about immigration’s negative impacts are self-sabotaging on a number of fronts. Not only because they are divisive and run contrary to America’s values of openness and inclusivity, but because they are fundamentally false and bad for the economy. The reality is that a responsible immigration policy has served as a rising tide for economic growth, and has helped strengthen US leadership in the world.
The system may have its flaws, but it’s certainly not broken:
First, immigrant populations keep the engine of growth moving forward. In a trend seen among most developed nations of the world --in Europe, Japan, and North America -- fertility rates are decreasing as families are having fewer children. As populations age, they become an increasing economic burden that needs to be offset by younger entrants into the workforce. In the US, white Americans are having less children, so it is immigrant families (with a higher birth rates) that are filling the labor gap. In effect, it is this group that is largely responsible for keeping pension funds and social security well financed; while driving the US economy forward into the next generation.
The extent of economic contributions by immigrants may be surprising to some: For instance, while immigrants make up 13% of the overall US population, they over-represent their contributions to the economy by fulfilling 15% of the national economic output. Additionally, studies have shown that immigrant participation in the labor force has actually improved wages and job opportunities overall for US citizens.
Second, immigration has been a tremendous force for innovation and entrepreneurship in the US, the extent to which is unrivaled in modern history. Consider the following: More than half the billion dollar companies in the US are founded by an immigrant. Each of these, on average, create 760 new jobs. 25% of all new businesses in the US are started by immigrants; and these businesses have experienced 60% increase in wages over the last decade. Add to these indicators the fact that over 50% of all Ph.D’s are earned by immigrants or foreign students; that 76% of new patents on inventions involve immigrants from top patent producing universities; and that 100% of US Nobel Prize winners last year were born outside of the US.
Immigrants are job makers, not job takers. Their entrepreneurial drive combined with high representation in higher education programs will help keep the nation’s innovative spirit strong -- as well as its competitive edge in the world.
Third, immigrants contribute significantly more into social services than they use. The common anti-immigration refrain that immigrants are a drain on social welfare is a myth. The opposite is true. Immigrants contribute more in taxes and social services than they receive in individual benefits, and their contributions help fund much needed public infrastructure and social services that all Americans benefit from.
From 2002-2009, for example, immigrants paid in over $115 billion more than they took out of Medicare; and from 2005 until 2080, immigrants will have contributed over $600 billion to help fund Social Security. According the study behind the latter’s figures, “imposing an immigration moratorium or reducing legal immigration would worsen the solvency of Social Security, harm taxpayers, and increase the size of the long range actuarial deficit of the Social Security trust fund.” If the July 2017 proposal to reduce immigration over the next decade were to carry through, Americans would have to balance the resulting $200+ billion Social Security deficit by paying more in taxes. When confronted with the possibility of significant tax hikes, the immigration option begins to look a lot more attractive.
Fourth, new immigrants adapt fast and assimilate well into American society. Immigrants have every incentive to learn English, educate themselves, and participate productively in broader society. According to the US Census Bureau data, they are doing just that with assimilation and integration trends rising in areas of English language proficiency, education, citizenship, homeownership, and wage growth. Once again, these realities run contrary to critics of immigration who express concern about the erosive effects of immigration on the nation’s cultural identity. They can rest assured knowing that the new generation of immigrants assimilate just as well, if not faster, into American society than the wave of European immigrants who arrived in the first half of the last century.
Fifth, immigration enhances an important component of US power, known as “soft power.” This power dimension, coined by former Chairman of the National Intelligence council, Joseph Nye, characterizes the ability of a country to influence the world through its values and cultural appeal. Nye points out that the US remains a symbol of prosperity and upward mobility in large part because of its culturally open and accepting values. “America is a magnet,” he writes, “and many people can envisage themselves as Americans.” As a result, immigrants to the US are in a position to convey more “accurate and positive” information back to their overseas networks, and help shape America’s global image. The US is perhaps the world’s first truly universal society in this way.
This soft-power influence should not be underestimated. The presence of multiple, thriving cultures in the US helps expand its interests around the world and counterbalances some of the more negatively perceived aspects of US “hard power.” This ultimately allows the US to achieve its foreign policy goals with greater ease and efficiency.
The net result of an inclusive and responsible immigration policy over the past half-century has helped create a vibrant social order and an economy unmatched in output, innovation, and leadership. To challenge these truths with populist narratives undermines a) the values that the US has been built on; b) the overall financial well-being and opportunities of American citizens; and c) US leadership position in the world.
Towards a Sustainable Immigration Policy
As the US looks towards a sustainable immigration policy, it is worth noting that although the net benefit for the nation is a positive one, there are a couple instances where immigration can cause near-term challenges. For instance, unchecked or too rapid an increase in immigration can cause social issues to arise. Additionally, immigration can cause job displacements or wage adjustments within specific industries and demographics.
In this instance, lower-skilled US workers in the labor force are disproportionately impacted by job displacement and wage loss by the arrival of lower-skilled immigrant workers. These immigrants are willing to accept lower wages, but the savings to the employers trickle up as profit, which exacerbates income inequality between employer and the employed. The overall pie ends up getting bigger; but it’s largely enjoyed by those at the top.
These issues need to be meaningfully addressed when crafting effective immigration policy. However, rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater through sharp reductions in immigration (or maligning it altogether), more appropriate responses can involve a combination of social safety nets and skills training/education to help affected groups adapt to any labor market adjustments caused by immigration.
It is of national interest to uphold responsible and compassionate immigration policies that have successfully shaped the US social and economic fabric, overall. In line with these objectives, President Trump and his Republican controlled House and Senate are now presented with the opportunity to score a quick victory, should they reinstate DACA through the legislative process.
Across the political spectrum the national public is largely sympathetic to the plight of “Dreamers” to remain in this country. They are here through no fault of their own; and in most instances the US is the only country they know. 97% of them are either employed or in school; close to 900 of them serve in the military; and according to a letter signed by 600 of the nation’s top CEO’s and business leaders, their removal would cost the US economy upwards of $460 billion.
For 15 years Congress failed to find a legislative solution to the question of undocumented immigrant children. It was only after the Republican controlled Senate failed to pass the DREAM Act in 2012 that President Obama bypassed the legislature and passed DACA as an Executive Order. While it’s not entirely fair to characterize this move as constitutional overreach, Executive Orders by nature are susceptible to legal challenges, and are not guaranteed to live beyond the enacting administration. President Trump — like his predecessor — is correct to turn to the House and Senate for a permanent fix to DACA. This time around, however, the climate is ripe to accomplish what previous administrations could not.
The president conveyed in his White House statement that he would resolve DACA with “heart and compassion.” It is the right thing to do, and it will be met with bipartisan support at a time when political unity is much needed.
Beyond DACA, lawmakers working through the complexities of immigration policy can take inspiration from Ronald Reagan's parting words from the Oval Office in 1989 when he said:
I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace -- a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.
That's how I saw it, and see it still.
The US is the great nation that it is today because of its sustainable, forward looking, and compassionate stance on immigration. Continuation of this legacy will ensure that US values, prosperity, and global leadership will endure well into the future.