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The Fresh Face of Immigration


As President Obama meets this week in Mexico with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harder, for discussions focused on drugs and violence, health issues, but primarily trade (Canada is America's first and Mexico our third largest trading partners), across America an emotional debate on immigration is raging. While much of the fence encircling our southern border has been built, many unemployed workers in the US would like to send all undocumented individuals back to their home country. These appeals are not new.

While America is a land of immigrants, anti-immigrant bias goes back to the Founding Fathers. In 1751, worried about German immigration, Benjamin Franklin wrote: "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them...?"

America has seen three major waves of immigration since this period. In the early part of the 19th century 15% of our population was foreign born with Germany being the major sending country. As the US reached the 200 million mark in the mid-1960's most new immigrants were from Europe (Italy being the primary sender) and the share of the population that was foreign born dropped to 5%. Now with the US population a little over 300 million most immigrants are coming from Latin America (52%) or Asia (26%) with Mexico as the lead country. During each major wave of immigration, anti-immigrant appeals such as Franklins' emerged.

Many assume that this latest wave of immigrants are less educated and are depressing wages. Yet a careful look at the data from the US Bureau of the Census as well as the Pew Research Center presents a far more complex picture: while 20 percent of the janitors were immigrants in 2000, so were 27% of new software engineers. While the foreign born make up 15% of the overall workforce, they also constitute 17% of those with bachelors degrees in science and engineering, 20% with a masters degree and 39% with a doctoral degree. It is a complex picture. Macroeconomic data does not support the notion that immigrants are depressing wages but they do show that immigrants, because the majority are younger than the population as a whole, are helping to support the US Social Security system.

While the data contradict widely held assumptions about this topic, this is an area where people argue from individual experience. The worker in the US who has lost a job and concludes it is because of undocumented worker is not likely to be persuaded by the statistics. Nor is a poor Mexican to be deterred by any sort of fence when his or her children are hungry. Politicians on both sides of the border have not been transparent when discussing the causes and consequences, the supply and demand of this latest wave of immigration. People are leaving poor countries because they want a better future for their families. US business has counted on this supply of labor for many decades. A more comprehensive solution will only be developed when supply and demand issues are addressed. Additionally, the sending countries -- especially Mexico -- need to develop sustainable development policies that support their citizens at home. US foreign policy and the policies of the international financial institutions could support these efforts by contributing to sustainable development in Mexico and Central America. We need policies and programs that recognize the individual costs (both in the US as well as the sending countries) as well as the national benefits from immigration.