04/16/2009 09:44 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rx for Toxic Economy: Immigrants

Dire economic times bring out the xenophobe in the best of us. The circling of wagons becomes a national callisthenic, preserving jobs and cultural identities a national rite. Nativism suddenly feels like second nature while protectionists proclaim that America is no longer a land of plenty.

There is less willingness to share. Everything and everyone appears threatening. While laboring under joblessness and economic distress, the fixing of our broken immigration system seems like the last thing on everyone's mind.
And, yet, it should be.

The New York Times ( published a number of recent immigration stories that ultimately call attention to our moral obligations to immigrants and to the self-sabotaging nature of our protectionist tendencies. The lives of many detained American noncitizens are in danger even as they remain under our watch. And many of them, measured in the spreadsheets of ultimate human value, are actually American assets and not liabilities.

We should be deploying immigrants in the service of getting us out of this recession rather misdirecting our resources in having them deported. We should incentivize their natural work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit by granting them citizenship rather than sealing off our walls and blaming them for many of our own failures.

There was the story of the 43-year-old Pakistani who died in a New Jersey detention center--one of the more than 500 facilities where half a million noncitizens are held--without anyone in charge claiming to know anything about it. The man simply died and seemingly disappeared. Too creepy--even for Kafka. In such bureaucratic, black-hole facilities there is no independent oversight or legal accountability. Many of these facilities are, in fact, for-profit. They operate in secrecy even though Congress and the Obama administration have called for transparency and change. (

Coincidentally, President Obama caught a break this week when two of America's leading labor federations agreed to support the overhaul of the immigration system despite the fact that the country is reeling through a recession. When labor unions are not driven by protectionist impulses you know something righteous is going on. The agreement endorsed legalizing the status of illegal immigrants who are already in the United States. (

Finally, there was a story about how restrictive immigration practices deprive American companies of the necessary brainpower to compete in this increasingly savvy technological world. Half the engineers in Silicon Valley are foreign born. If not for the Chinese, Indians, and Russians, America would possess no global technological edge. Worse, an unimaginably large amount of wealth and job creation would be lost. (

Isn't this the time, precisely when our economy has collapsed, when we should be welcoming educated, hard-working foreigners to stay right here--please don't move, pick up a shovel, man a cubicle and get to work? Instead, we allow them to graduate from our universities and then insanely insist that they leave rather than live out their American dreams. Such a twisted, unimaginative immigration policy sounds like the makings of an American nightmare.

Unless one happens to possess Cherokee, Chippewa, Sioux, or Navajo blood, everyone in America is, ultimately, the genetic byproduct of immigrant stock. Some forebear wisely knew that America was a vast improvement over the inhospitably soul-crushing place of native origins.

An American patriot is one who realizes that it is a privilege to be an American, and acts in accordance with that privilege and the responsibility it carries.

Let's be honest: We all know people who don't deserve to be here--not because they weren't born in America but because they don't seem to possess the full sense of appreciation of what America means. Among the tens of millions of native-born American citizens we have our fair share of louts, the callous and lazy, those who lack virtue and industry, who thrive on indecency and deceit, are motivated by excess and greed, and offer nothing but manipulation and mischief.

There are many root causes of this recession, but most of it is related to citizens gone bad rather than immigrants who have intruded upon the American way of life.

The advantage that a native-born citizen possesses is, ultimately, an accident of birth--the fact that one is born here rather than elsewhere. But these accidents should, properly, result in our good fortune. If, instead, we become the casualties of squandered citizenship, then something truly un-American has gone terribly wrong.

America has always made room for people who deserve to be here, those who are enduring credits to the American experiment rather than national mistakes. It's time to make citizens of many of our worthy immigrants. It's what we should want; it's what we need.