Immigration is undermining America.
For years, it was an American strength. The Statue of Liberty proclaims: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. Persecuted Pilgrims, starving Irishmen, war refugees, and millions of others came to America to seek a new life in a new land, their dynamism propelling the new country into a position of global leadership.
But now there is strong opposition to immigration. How can it be that a nation created by immigrants is now rejecting immigration? Tension is palpable in the two messages embodied in the border: KEEP OUT and HELP WANTED. The American economy needs cheap labor - it has always had an underclass, often earlier immigrants working themselves up into the Middle Class and being replaced by still newer immigrants.
So what has changed??
Two things have changed dramatically: the structure of the American working force and the globalization of economic development.
America no longer needs new workers, it needs new work. There is an underlying concern over an aging population, where will the country get the workers to support them? But reality is the opposite, there are too many workers. Thanks to mechanization spurred by new technologies, essential production and services can be provided by only a fraction of the work force. The resulting oversupply of labor has resulted in high unemployment rates which do not even count long-term unemployed or people who have given up on finding work; nor do they count the underemployed - people working well below their skill levels and often well below prior salary levels. Excess workers are an inherent aspect of the current work structure. Nevertheless, even with millions of Americans out of work, there is still a demand for cheap immigrant labor. And the basic reason is simple: many of the jobs which immigrants are called upon to perform are not only physically demanding, but they also fail to pay a living wage which could support even a modest American life style. But wages these jobs do pay are still generally better than immigrants could earn in their country of origin.
What makes the situation so problematical is that this current immigrant underclass no longer has prospects of working its way up into the Middle Class. The Middle Class itself is going downhill. Many of its members are no longer or only barely able to earn a living wage. Poverty rates are steadily rising. What is really broken is American wage scales. The presence of large numbers of out-of-work Americans and undocumented immigrants significantly reduces pressure on employers to raise wages when there are so many workers willing, even desperate, to take low-wage jobs while millions of immigrants are willing to take even lower wage jobs. While it is true that integrating millions of undocumented workers into the American economy would increase its size, much of the increase would be due to meeting requirements of the immigrants themselves, requirements for goods, housing, schools, roads, medical facilities. This helps meet an untenable need for continuing economic growth, but the economy would only be larger, not more equitable.
These wage pressures are not only active at the low end of the wage spectrum. At the high end, American companies now hire well over 100,000 skilled immigrants yearly. The basic justification for this is that the companies cannot find qualified Americans. So skilled immigrants take high paying jobs while newly graduated American engineers, scientists, and technicians have trouble finding work. Part of this problem is some mismatch between the job qualifications companies are looking to hire for and the specific qualifications of skilled Americans. But part of it also is the willingness of skilled immigrants to work for salary and reimbursement levels lower than available American workers. In addition, the brain drain of drawing skilled workers from developing countries undermines the ability of these countries to develop their own economies.
Overall, immigrants provide downward pressures on American wages at both the low and high end of the scale; excess workers undermine all wage levels. One result is the economic stagnation of the Middle Class. The Ladder of Success is now broken, not only for new immigrants but also for many native Americans. The current underclass is stuck in a subsistence position while millions of others are left without prospects of improving their own lives. Wealth inequality is becoming a central challenge of the American economy, eroding the cohesion of American society. Immigration exacerbates it, helping to divide America increasingly into a two-tier society with millions of frustrated and increasingly desperate individuals, naturally driving up violence, drug activity, gang membership, and prison incarceration rates, already the highest in the world.
Globalization is the second major change, international economic competitiveness.
One aspect is that the Industrialized World in general and America in particular no longer enjoys privileged (i.e., cheap) access to energy, raw materials, and agricultural goods. Global competition has driven prices up and availability down. While it is not quite a flat world, an engineer in Moscow or a computer specialist in Mumbai or a designer in Bangkok can compete directly with American workers, while low wage rates abroad attract manufacturing facilities. Even if American companies do not move abroad, determined global competition undermines their position. Although global wages and manufacturing costs are slowly climbing, anything close to parity is a long way off and many American jobs will never come back.
Many governments fail to provide opportunities for their own citizens to earn a living wage and this is ultimately what drives immigration into the Industrialized World. This is intensified in many cases by natural riches, which tend to build and support corrupt upper classes at the expense of everyday workers, and by environmental and safety deficiencies which also impact everyday workers. The problem requires significant governance improvements in the developing world.
But beyond these challenges of raw materials, wage rates and local governance, globalization is bringing more fundamental changes. There is an unprecedented strategic situation where no major nation faces a direct threat of invasion or subjugation. Global competition is increasingly economic competition. China as a rising power is increasingly seen as an American rival, but the Chinese and American economies are now tightly intertwined, making cooperation more important than competition. This is particularly true for China as leadership legitimacy now rests almost entirely on economic performance. Poor economic performance would almost certainly push the leadership into a nationalistic and confrontational stance, threatening stability on a world scale. Similarly, the prospects of a major war in Europe are now negligible, but economic disintegration threatens stability there. What is now clear in Europe is becoming clear everywhere: prosperity is no longer divisible. The Arab Spring was driven by American values of freedom and the worth of the individual, but has been undermined by economic shortcomings. Stability in Afghanistan remains elusive as military efforts proved inadequate and economic development was badly neglected. Both Brazil and Turkey are now facing broad popular discontent due to economic imbalances and a number of failed states continue to spread misery and unrest.
Immigration into the Industrial World is not an isolated problem but the symptom of a much deeper challenge: promoting global prosperity. The Industrialized World cannot act as a safety valve for the rest of the globe. Immigration is in fact an even larger problem in Europe which has no tradition of integrating immigrants into the fabric of society. Instead, immigrants remain as economically disadvantaged resident outsiders. While undermining cohesion in the Industrialized World, immigration reduces pressure on developing nations to address their own economic challenges.
Immigration can only be addressed in the context of a concerted international effort to promote global economic development and prosperity. This requires strong leadership, and the only country capable of providing such leadership is the United States. But the United States cannot lead the way to more equitable economic distribution when its own economy is so dysfunctional. It is not immigration that threatens the United States, though it does not help. It is global turmoil that threatens American prosperity and cohesiveness, and immigration is just an indicator of this. It is a forlorn hope to protect American jobs by simply limiting immigration