President Donald Trump made waves with his order to halt immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries and speed up deportation of immigrants who are here illegally. But by focusing on which immigrants to keep out, he diverts our attention from the more important question: “Which immigrants should we let in?”
Trump’s question is necessary. We must keep out the bad guys: the criminals and potential terrorists. Securing the borders is a political as well as a national security requirement; we will not be able to adopt immigration reform if the American public does not feel safe.
But we have to move away from the exclusionary approach that has marked our immigration debates for years. We need to think of immigration as an opportunity: a key to surviving and prospering in a hyper-competitive 21st century. Our paramount question on immigration should be: Which immigrants can help make us more prosperous and more secure?
To institutionalize this effort, we need a mechanism that will continually adjust immigration levels based on a thorough, ongoing analysis of our economic and security requirements. In short, we should allow into the country people who have the talent we need.
A standing, independent federal commission would make recommendations to Congress for adjusting immigration levels on a regular basis, perhaps every two years, to identify our needs and the skills necessary to meet those needs. Though not a perfect analogy, this commission would be akin to the way the Federal Reserve System manages the money supply.
The benefits of a new approach can be substantial. We can renew and enrich our nation. We can draw strength and human capital from every corner of the world. We can add youth and expertise to our workforce, bringing in energy and ideas.
We are fortunate that immigrants line up to enter the United States, giving us the opportunity to be selective.
Research shows that immigrants make a nation’s economy more productive and raise its GDP. In the United States, 44 percent of medical scientists and 42 percent of computer software developers are foreign born. Immigrants are overrepresented in academic, medical and technical professions.
One study found that immigrants started over half of U.S. billion-dollar startups. And all six U.S. residents who received 2016 Nobel Prizes in the sciences and economics are immigrants.
These people are essential if we are to maintain our world leadership in science and technology. Their new ideas and inventions will drive our economy, and their diversity will enrich our culture and society.
The benefits of immigration are real, but so are the challenges.
One important challenge is integrating immigrants into the fabric of American society. And though we have done it quite well over the years, it has not always gone smoothly. While immigration policy is set by the federal government, integration efforts are typically local and ad hoc, involving individuals, businesses and community organizations as well as local and state governments.
We also have a challenge with public opinion. Americans are deeply divided about whether immigration helps or hurts our country. Widespread opposition to immigration is apparent in the hostility we have seen toward Muslims and the nostalgia for an earlier America that was more culturally, ethnically and racially homogenous.
Other challenges to immigration are to deal more effectively with illegal immigration, protect our native-born workforce, secure our borders and redesign our overburdened system.
We should not entirely set aside the current system’s priority on uniting families. But by adopting the new approach, we are better positioned to respond to global challenges.
My plea is to be smart and selective about which immigrants we let in. We also need to enforce the rules and secure our borders. Employers need to have confidence that federal information about immigrant job applicants is accurate and current. Those who knowingly hire unauthorized workers should be penalized. And we have to provide a path to legal resident status for immigrants now in the U.S.
The right kind of immigrants can advance vital American interests in this century, but only if we recognize the intense global competition we face for world leadership and see immigration as an essential tool to enable us to compete effectively, be more secure, maintain our tradition of openness and strengthen our position as the world’s leading power.