“From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome. … Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” —Inscription on the Statue of Liberty.
America is a grand experiment in democracy, a place where people are free to pursue their own happiness. America is also a nation of immigrants, a great melting pot of the world. Now in this day, we are at a critical juncture in the debate on immigration policy. President Obama has recently called for reform on immigration, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. The president and I may not agree often, but this is one instance in which I staunchly back his agenda. It is time to open the gates of America and welcome those who come here in search of the American dream.
There are three main objections to free immigration. The first is that immigrants steal American jobs and are bad for the economy. The second is that immigrants dilute American culture and values. The third is that immigrants who come here illegally obtain benefits without sharing the costs. I will address all three below.
Rather than being an economic detriment, immigrants offer a significant boost to the economy. Currently, American immigration policy operates on a racial and ethnic quota, capping the amount of immigrants from each country. This is a vestige of a bygone era where socially engineering the racial composition of the nation was considered good policy. According to Pia Orrenius, a Federal Reserve economist, only about 15 percent of green cards are issued to high-skilled workers (and their families) for reasons of employment. We are losing high-skilled labor to other nations with friendlier policies. These immigrants can help us stay ahead in innovation and technology. Even relatively unskilled laborers should be freely admitted. These workers would increase competition in the American labor market, driving down prices. Increasing competition is good in terms of economic efficiency and also helps to lower prices for consumers. Like quotas in other markets, creating a quota in the labor market by limiting immigrants hurts everyone. Immigrants are mostly younger people who can help sustain our entitlement programs for the rapidly aging baby-boomer generation. We do not want to go down the path of Japan where the 65-and-over population is projected to become almost 40 percent of the total population by 2050, according to the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs. Immigrants are thus a big part of the answer to our economic and social welfare problems. As for stealing jobs, who is an American? How is an immigrant who naturalizes or is on the path to naturalization not an American?
The cultural objection should not stand in the way of millions who want to be proud Americans. Those who bring up the cultural argument generally believe that allowing an influx of immigrants would somehow permanently alter our national identity and destroy our cherished values. But what are American values? We praise those who are hard working, independent and enterprising. That seems to me to be a good description of most immigrants. They come to our nation in search of freedom from oppression and the opportunity to create a better life for themselves and their posterity. What about that is un-American? I do believe that the process to citizenship should mandate a proficiency in English and an understanding of American history and civics. But I believe that most immigrants are more than happy to assimilate into American society, embrace our culture and become model citizens. In fact, by coming from nations with different political and socioeconomic systems, immigrants have a greater appreciation for the free markets of America and the liberty ingrained in our democratic republic. They are a benefit to our culture, not a detriment.
Lastly, it is true that illegal immigrants obtain benefits in many states without having to pay into the system. Yes, that bothers a lot of people and it bothers me too. But rather than it being an indictment of illegal immigrants, I see it as a major flaw in the way the system is set up in the first place. The government has no place managing most social programs. Even if you are not philosophically opposed to an activist government, you should consider their economic inefficiency. A bureaucratic, centrally planned system is, in most cases, inferior to a market solution in terms of efficacy and fairness. But, that is a discussion for another day. If you complain that illegal immigrants don’t share costs for programs that they draw benefits from, then allow them to be legal citizens so that they do pay taxes into the system. Let them be contributing members of society without having the constant fear of deportation shadowing them. Don’t doom them to a system where they are forever a marginalized group, almost like second-rate citizens. Instead, give them a path to attaining that which you and I cherish: the rights, liberties and opportunities afforded to American citizens.
Turning our backs on immigrants is a betrayal of our own American values. Instead, I channel my inner Reagan and say, “Mr. Obama, tear down this wall.” The American dream must endure.
Jonathan Zhao is a Trinity freshman. His column runs every other Thursday.